Changing minds about meat

Can people be gently persuaded to eat less meat?
29 September 2020

Interview with 

Emma Garnett, University of Cambridge, Chris Davis, Impossible Foods,


chairs and tables in a cafeteria


What factors drive our food choices and dietary decisions, especially when we dine out, or eat at work? Adam Murphy spoke to the University of Cambridge's Emma Garnett, who is trying to change minds in the university's cafeterias, and then to Chris Davis, research director at Impossible Foods, who are trying to make meat substitutes that fully replicate the real thing...

Adam - We know there are benefits to a plant based diet. And we also know that people don't like change, but is there anything that can be done to gently persuade people to be a bit veggie-er? Emma Garnett from the university of Cambridge looked at one approach in the university's cafeterias.

Emma - We found that increasing vegetarian availability in cafes, so instead of one out of four options being vegetarian, it's two out of four, increased vegetarian sales. And not just in people who are more likely to pick a vegetarian option anyway, but even in the most carnivorous diners, they also became more likely to pick a vegetarian option. It seems that just providing people with more vegetarian and plant based alternatives really helps. Another set of studies we did we wondered, how does the position of meals in cafeterias, how does that influence sales? And so week by week, we swapped putting a vegetarian option nearest the entrance, so this veg-first condition, and putting the vegetarian option further away from the entrance and the meat option first. And what we found was that when there was quite a long distance between those two options, 181 centimetres to be precise, then vegetarian sales increased by between four and six percentage points. However, when the vegetarian and meat options were quite close together, less than 80 centimetres, putting the vegetarian option first didn't really increase sales. And in fact, sales could even be lower. So that was quite surprising and unexpected because there's a very commonly held belief - if you want people to just pick something more, you put it nearer a cafeteria entrance. And we found that that's not really the case necessarily. It can work under some circumstances. So it seems to be the more important thing is about having a vegetarian option being the easiest, being the default option, the least effortful.

Adam - But that's not the only way. There have been leaps and bounds made in meat substitutes, things like meat-free burgers or vegan sausage rolls. Chris Davis, research director of Impossible Foods, is working on making the best meatless meat.

Chris - We started off with a specific mission in mind, which was to replace animals in the food system. And in order to do that, you need to provide a better product that provides more consumer benefits and sell it to people at lower cost. Then if that product also has sustainability advantages, you can make some difference to biodiversity et cetera. So because of that, we started off with a very clear focus on meeting the normal meat-eaters where they are today. So not trying to ask them to eat anything different, trying to make something that looks exactly and behaves exactly like the meat they're already eating. And so, as a result of that, we went back to first principles and said, well, what is it about animal tissue that provides the sensory delight? The way it cooks, the way it transitions, the way it handles - all of those things are important to the social glue that meat provides in a lot of ways. And so what we had to do was basically go back to first principles and identify the molecular ingredients that enabled us to replicate that. And I think that's just a very different approach than any of the previous companies that trade in this field. So let's start with the sizzle! The sizzle of cooking meat - if you think about it, it's critical to your enjoyment of meat, but it really has nothing to do with the animal. It's really to do with the way that the fat and the water leaks from the meat when you cook it. And so by measuring that, we can then say, okay, how do we replicate that behaviour? And so we're able to create a fat mimic and include it in the composite material of our meat that had that same performance of leakage that led to the same sizzle. So when you now cook it on the grill, you get the sizzle, you're cooking it on the barbecue, you'll get the flames coming up when the fat hits the coal. It's all driven by our fundamental understanding of how sizzle works. And basically we've done that all the way through meat.

Adam - And what is Chris's admittedly biased opinion about the importance of meat alternatives, like the ones from Impossible Foods?

Chris - This is probably the most interesting and important scientific challenge that is currently going on in the world is how do you feed the world with delicious, nutritious food in a way that enables us to maintain the planet in a state in which we want to live? So we can maintain having rainforests, that we can make a significant dent in climate change. People underestimate how important the food system is to our impact upon the planet. And we can do so much better if we step aside from the stone age technology of animals. Eating animals made sense as a pre-agricultural society, but from just a straight up efficiency perspective and our ability to feed the 9 billion people or so we'll have on the planet in a few years time, we need a better way to feed people.


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