The ‘cheese paradox’: How vegetarians justify consuming animal products

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Many vegetarians eat dairy and eggs despite the fact that they contribute, in many cases, to the death of the animals as meat does. Image Source: The Good Brigade/Getty Images
Many vegetarians eat dairy and eggs despite the fact that they contribute, in many cases, to the death of the animals as meat does. Image Source: The Good Brigade/Getty Images

Related tags Dairy Eggs alternative protein precision fermentation Veganism

Many vegetarians choose not to consume meat for ethical reasons, believing that harming and killing animals simply to provide humans with food is wrong. However, they still eat non-meat animal products (NMAPs), which often have the same result. A new study in the journal Appetite explores the motivations behind this.

The ‘meat paradox’ is the concept, first coined in 2010 by Steve Loughnan, Nick Haslam and Brock Bastian, of the psychological conflict people feel between their moral disapproval of the killing of animals for meat, and the fact that they still desire the meat’s taste.  

When we experience such a feeling, a new study proposes, we are faced with a dilemma between our desired behaviour and morals. When this happens, “strategies to reduce dissonance are widely believed to take one of three routes: changing values, changing behaviour, or obscuring the behaviour-value contradiction​.”

However, the new study instead looks at the dissonance vegetarians experience between their rejection of eating meat and willingness to eat NMAPs, which often have the same result (the suffering and, indeed, death of animals).

The study interviewed 12 vegetarians on their motives for eating eggs and dairy when they were aware that these practices often had similar results for the animals as meat consumption.

While there were some issues with the study – sample size, the possibility that the subjects’ knowledge of the researchers’ ethical veganism, as they were drawn from among acquaintances – it nevertheless presented a clear cognitive dissonance between subjects’ ethical attitudes towards animal products, and their consumption habits.

Cognitive dissonance

Many of the subjects had a vivid aversion to NMAPs when they were more clearly linked to animals, in the way meat itself is. For example, many were more comfortable with eating cheese than drinking milk. This, the study suggested, was because milk is closer to the cow in production than cheese, the processing of which has made it more difficult to associate with their perception of cruelty within the dairy industry.

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Many subjects found milk more unpalatable for ethical reasons than cheese. Image Source: Jamie Garbutt/Getty Images

I think because when it’s in its liquid form,”​ said one subject, “you relate it more to what you’re consuming. When it’s in a block, you’re not really thinking, oh, this is cruelty because you’re not seeing it right in front of you. So, I think the process it goes to make cheese, for some reason in my head makes it more justifiable […] when you’re seeing it in the milk form, it just seems more wrong​.”

The study also found that people were aware that the production of the NMAPs in question often effectively led to the death of the animal – male chicks are usually killed upon birth, for instance, and male calves are often shot or sold to the veal industry to be killed for their flesh – but this did not dissuade them from eating NMAPs.

Subjects would often justify their consumption by referencing more ethical farming practices, such as free-range, although admit that they did not know enough about these to make an informed decision.

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Subjects were aware of the death of male chicks in the egg industry. Image Source: Kathrin Ziegler/Getty Images

Um, well, I don't do like much to ensure that,​” said one subject, “but I just consider it that the place has the right regulations and things are done in the proper way. And there are some places where things are very strict and done to the best. I've been to some such places​.”

Not natural

Many people justify eating meat by appealing to how natural it is – being successful hunters contributed to human evolution and many other species are carnivorous and omnivorous by nature. However, according to Devon Docherty, one of the paper’s authors, this is not used as a justification when it comes to NMAPs.

From the research I have done​,” she told FoodNavigator, “I think those who eat only NMAPs tend to recognise that they aren't absolute necessities in their diet and see them as an - albeit important - enjoyable extra, whereas those who consume meat tend to see it as fundamental to their diet.

While people who eat meat tend to use the argument that it's natural to do so, I found a distinct absence of 'natural' arguments for eating NMAPs, perhaps because it's not natural to eat products like cheese, the coagulated secretions of another species​.”

Indeed, products like cheese – which was the most enthusiastically consumed NMAP among the subjects – are inextricably linked to humans and, most importantly, to civilisation and innovation rather than our ‘natural’, pre-historical habits. Even milk is not as present in the natural world as meat consumption.

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All of the subjects were avid consumers of cheese, despite the fact that it is linked to the same processes as milk, which appalled many of them. Image Source: Elena Katkova/Getty Images

I am not an evolutionary psychologist, but I believe humans would have originally begun consuming dairy during the agricultural revolution when we began domesticating animals,” ​Docherty told us.

“Milk would have been a useful source of hydration and calories in areas where drought was common, and in colder regions where crops are harder to grow. In terms of eggs, we have probably been eating them for a lot longer - they are commonly found in the wild and we would have eaten them raw from nests - and domesticating chickens has given us a ready supply.

“As society has advanced and we have made these products tastier (such as by cooking them, and creating cheese) and even more available, we have developed a greater taste and possible cravings for them. That's not to say that we need these products for our survival anymore, though​.”

Social survival

The subjects of the study did not focus extensively on the idea of necessity (except when it came to the consumption of eggs), but instead the pleasure associated with cheese, as well as the social pressures linked to the consumption of meat.

Contrary to popular belief, the study suggested, there is a social pressure on vegans to justify their food habits.

I think I'll always be hesitant about defining, putting someone into a box,” ​said one subject, “because vegetarian isn't as stigmatised as vegan, but like vegans are horrifically abused, just for being put into a box.

“Like there's different vegans who believe different things, and vegan for different reasons, but they're all put into a box and shunned […] I don't really want to put myself into that because that comes with these preconceived notions of what it is to be ‘that’​”.

So while the argument for eating NMAP wasn’t made in favour of nutritional survival, when it came to social survival it was a different story.

The future of animal products

Docherty, an ethical vegan herself, does not believe that NMAP can be produced without cruelty except through technological innovation.  

The only scenario in which the industrial production of NMAPs can continue without cruelty is if and when they are made by precision fermentation or another food technology that can produce these products almost exactly, without harming an animal​,” she told us.

Food technology is the way forward when it comes to replacing traditional animalproteins​.”

Sourced From: Appetite
'The cheese paradox: How do vegetarians justify consuming non-meat animal products? ’
Published on: 16 July 2023
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-023-01361-0
Authors: D. Docherty, C. Jasper

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