How did humans get hooked on meat? This book tells all, and it’s helpful for vegans, even though it’s not a pro-vegan book.
Since publishing Vegan Marketing Success Stories, I’ve gotten a lot of questions around how the animal agriculture industry marketed itself to the point we were all convinced we needed to eat animals for protein, how vegan businesses can beat them, and what the best tactics are to do that. It’s something I never considered addressing in the book, but I’m glad I came across an article that mentioned Marta Zaraska‘s book, Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat. It was published in 2016 by Basic Books in the USA.
I’d highly recommend reading the book (not sure if vegans would really want it on their bookshelves, ha), and I’ll recap some of the points I thought were interesting here.
The history and culture of eating animals
The early humans ate nuts and seeds and when they started eating meat, it was “scavenged,” not hunted. So people would eat the carcasses of already dead animals before they were able to hunt them alive (it’s hard to fight with a wild pig).
Many, many years later, meat became necessary for survival in the North (modern day Europe, Russia) where growing plant foods were more scarce. Our bodies need protein and fat, two things animal products are abundant in. Humans developed an E4 gene that allowed us to eat meat without getting sick.
Zaraska talked about how some people have more papillae (bumps on the top of your tongue that help you grip food) on their tongues. You could call these people “supertasters.” Fat could be considered the sixth taste. Meat contains glutamate and inosinate, which provides that umami, or deliciousness factor our tongues like. However, as many plant-based meat alternatives have proven, we can get this from other foods. The aromas of (what I assume is cooked) meat make our brains think it’s a safe and pleasant food.
The English, Australians, and Americans (let’s just say white people) all saw meat as a sign of progression. This is why you see animals on tables in all those old paintings. It’s documented that one of Jesus’ apostles, James “the just,” was vegetarian, but Paul (another disciple) called it a weakness. In the 4th century, those who didn’t eat meat were considered demon worshippers and died because of their beliefs. And we thought witchy women had it hard!
Later in the Middle Ages, vegetarianism was associated with monks. Horse was eaten culturally until the 19th century because of the influence of Catholicism.
In the 19th century, John H. Kellogg (yes, that Kellogg) normalized cereal, bread, and pastries as breakfast foods. This—taking animals off of breakfast plates—could be seen as a good thing, but the guy also did horrible stuff like circumcise women because he thought sex was bad.
In Denmark during World War I, grains that were meant for animals were diverted to people, even though meat was routinely fed to men in war. 1917 was called the “Year of Health” because people noticed the difference when they didn’t have meat to eat. Animal-free farms and vegetarian communes popped up during this time, but failed more times than the animal farms did. (Hitler interestingly was a vegetarian.)
Over time, lack of meat would deem a culture as scarce. In the 1980s in Poland, people would line up for hours to buy meat at a butcher shop.
Meat also became associated with lust and power. In The Sexual Politics of Meat (which I haven’t read but sounds sexy), Carol J. Adams says that eating animals maintains the patriarchy. She calls it a “crisis of masculinity.”
In Africa, women were forbidden to eat meat and were raped and/or killed if they were found consuming it. In African and Latin American cultures, wealth is measured by the number of cattle one owns.
At the time of book publishing, up to 16 million dogs are eaten in Asia (83% of South Koreans eat dogs and similar products). Horse is still eaten in China, Mexico, Italy, and other parts of central Asia. The only time cultures stop eating animals is to preserve natural resources. So either they don’t believe in climate change, or they’re stubborn and just won’t let go of tradition (let the kids deal with that).
The downside of eating animals
The E4 gene we developed that allowed us to eat meat without getting sick makes us age faster.
While the 19th century academics liked the idea of getting protein through meat, they also experienced kidney failure, osteoporosis, heart problems, and cancer whenever there was an overindulgence. We now know that processed meat products are carcinogenic, red meat is a potential carcinogen, and animal products in general can make us susceptible to other diseases.
The androstenone in the testicles of pigs results in a stench that makes pork undesirable. Some farms retain this because it results in a leaner meat. Generally, the more an animal suffers, the worse the meat will taste, so farmers go through acidification and high temperature processes to reduce the WHC (water-holding capacity) of the meat. Over-fridgeration will also make meat too hard.
Farmers feed calves iron-deficient milk to make veal taste more tender and delicate. Feeding cows with hormones (which 70% of US cattle are given at the time of book publishing) adds to the animal suffering, so they inject the cows with some sort of solution, again to improve the taste.
I mention all of this because it seems like we go through a whole lot to try and make animal products taste good, when maybe they really aren’t meant to be consumed as a staple food, or at all.
The marketing of animal products
The amount of money that went into marketing animal products stepped up in the late 20th century. In 1987, pork was labelled “The other white meat.”
In 1988, the USDA wanted to share that eating less meat was more healthy in their Report on Nutrition and Health, but the committees that created dietary recommendations also got grants from meat and dairy industry, so they couldn’t use the phrase “Eat less meat.” It turned into “choose lean meats.”
In 1992, $42 billion dollars went into a campaign with the tagline: “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” Fast food companies invested in commercials that further increased meat production and purchasing, and none of these ads showed animals, only the final food products, so people would forget they were eating animals.
A seven-patty filled Windows 7 Whopper: a Burger King sandwich created to promote the Microsoft Windows 7 operating system in 2009. Source: Wikimedia
Animal ag companies (at least in the US) continue to receive billions in government subsidies annually. And all of the scientific studies touting the health benefits of animal products were/are funded in the millions by the animal ag industry.
In 1996 when Oprah said she would never eat a beef burger again and found herself in the middle of a lawsuit (Burgers v. Oprah), the media became afraid to speak out against the industry, so that explains why we haven’t been seeing many reports from them until recently.
The month of September was called “Eat Chicken Month” on social media in an attempt to increase the purchase of chicken.
Neophobia is a fear that new foods will kill you. (My uncle comes to mind, who is afraid to try a plant-based burger patty.) Those who don’t grow up eating vegetables and fruits can develop an aversion to them. That’s why Zaraska says, “People actually argue more fervently when they are less confident about their dietary choices” (142). Piers Morgans’ rants on TV come to mind.
Zaraska continues: “Studies show that a mere exposure to a plant eater puts omnivores on edge and causes cognitive dissonance, leaning on a set of psychological mechanisms that ends up allowing the meat eaters to double down on their carnivory” (143). This comment I got in response to sharing my Global TV interview in a business-focused Facebook group (with zero intention of promoting veganism) somewhat reflects this:
Vegans: Omnivores may be scared of us. And I get it! Our very existence exudes a moral high ground.
One study with meat eaters had participants assess the mental abilities of cows. The group that was about to eat beef saw cows as less smart. And I get that. We want to have excuses for killing animals. (They’re dumb, so we may as well eat them!)
The words “beef” and “pork” also allow people to forget the sentience of these animals; we don’t call them cows and pigs like we do vegetables by name.
We don’t know what to do with plants…but we know we have to stop eating as many animals as we do.
There’s also a stigma around vegetables. How we do cook them to make them taste good? You don’t have to do much with animal products, whereas vegetables are made better by seasoning and pairing with other foods. So the lack of knowledge around cooking plant foods has added to the reluctance to give up animals. There’s also a lack of social support around those who choose a vegetarian or vegan path.
There’s an upside to Meathooked. While Zaraska isn’t vegan, she recognizes that transitioning away from animal products is part of our future. She outlines the five transitions of human nutrition:
- Food collecting
- Receding famine
- Degenerative disease
- Behavioural change (this is where we should be moving into now)
She recognizes that in order to slow global warming, meat consumption will need to be reduced globally. Ahead of her time, she points out that lab-grown meat would cut GHGs by a whopping 80%, and water use in animal ag by 90%.
Eating insects is one way we could still get that protein without using as many natural resources as we do, but it’s not a popular option in the West.
A meat tax would also incentivize more consumption of alternatives.
“Lord Stein, former VP of the World Bank and adviser to the UK government, believes that in the future eating meat will become as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving” (194). If I sum up Zaraska’s argument accurately, it’s that while we may not ever eliminate animal products completely, we must reduce our consumption of meat. And I’d agree with that.