Why is Mankind Obsessed with Meat? | Marta Zaraska | TEDxBocconiU

Why is Mankind Obsessed with Meat? | Marta Zaraska | TEDxBocconiU

Translator: Natalia Batchenkova
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven So, I would like to begin
by asking you all a question. How many of you here
are vegetarians or vegans? Can you please raise your hands? Alright, yea, quite a few, alright.
I won’t be trying to count. Now I have a pathway question. How many of you – vegetarian and vegans, that’s to you – how many of you have eaten meat
within the last 24 hours? Okay, but not meat eaters,
vegetarians and vegans only. How many vegetarians and vegans
have eaten meat within the last 24 hours? None? Well, that is
actually quite surprising because surveys
tend to find something else. One such study done
in the United States has found that 60% of vegetarians and vegans have actually eaten meat
within the last 24 hours. And a similar thing
has been found in Canada. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom,
almost 40% of vegetarians say that whenever they get drunk,
they do eat meat. (Laughter) So, obviously there is something
very powerful about meat that even some vegetarians
and vegans just can not resist. In the fall of 2015,
there was a report released. It was a report done by WHO –
so the World Health Organisation, one of the most important
health organisations out there – and in the report, they basically took
all the research on meat and cancer, and they have concluded
that processed meat, so the pepperonis and hams and bacon, that it causes cancer to humans. And they’ve put processed meat in the same category
of carcinogenic compounds as asbestos, so that is quite serious. And red meat, so unprocessed red meat,
like pork and beef, they said it probably causes cancer too. Their report in North America
was all over the media, so press was saying things like, “Meat will kill you”,
“Bacon equals cigarettes”, all these kinds of things. And, about two months
after that report was released, I was sitting in my office,
and I started wondering, How much such a report would
scare people away from eating meat? How many people will go out and think, “Maybe it’s not worth risking, maybe at least I’ll try to cut down
my consumption”, right? So I went to a website run by
the producers of beef in North America, I found the most recent sales report,
and I clicked on the report, and when I saw the data,
I just couldn’t believe my eyes. Basically, the sales were up. Not down. So after hearing that meat
probably causes cancer, Americans went out and bought more of it! Well, that kind of meat paradox – the fact that humans love meat so much that despite all the consequences, you know, to our health,
the planet, the animals, we still want more of it – it’s been something that I’ve been
researching for years now, and I’ve discovered that there are two main reasons
why we love meat so much. And both of those reasons, they go back in time
to 2.5 million years ago, when our ancestors
first started eating meat. So what happened
those 2.5 million years ago was that the climate has changed – at least on African savannas,
where our ancestors were living back then. The foods that they were relying on,
some fruits for example, became less available, harder to find. What became more available was meat. Because there were suddenly
more grazing animals, more predators killing those animals, and there was just
more leftover meat laying around for our ancestors to scavenge –
because we were scavengers at first. And, most likely by chance,
very soon our ancestors discovered that meat was not only edible,
it was actually great food! It was full of nutrients, you know,
protein, calories, vitamins and minerals; it was really, really good for them. It was so good that scientists
call it “high quality food”, especially when you compare it
to other foods they were eating; those people were eating
grass and leaves, for example. So today, when you are, you know, feeling like a burger or maybe a steak
or whatever you meat eaters eat – you are probably craving one of three flavors that are found
in meat and that we evolved to crave. So the first thing is fat. So the smooth texture of fat
in your mouth, the smells connected to fat, to our ancestors, it signified
that the food was full of calories. And obviously, calories
were very important for survival, you wanted more of them. The second thing that we love in the taste
of meat is something called umami. Umami in Japanese means delicious,
and it’s the fifth basic taste, so alongside salty, bitter and sweet,
it’s a basic taste, and meat is particularly full of umami. It’s full of deliciousness,
and this is why we love it. Because to our taste buds that signifies that this
is a food full of protein. And to our ancestors, once again, it was very important to love
the umami taste of protein because other foods
didn’t have much of it. So we really had to love it,
to evolve to love it. And the third thing we still love
in the taste of meat is something called the products
of the Maillard reaction. So the Maillard reaction
is something that happens, for example, when you grill a burger. So you go past the grill, and then smell this delicious,
mouth-watering smell of a grilling burger. These are those chemicals. They are produced when you put
certain foods in a hot, dry environment – so you grill them,
you roast them, for example. This also happens when you
bake cookies or you toast bread. And we’ve evolved to love
those flavors, those smells because to our ancestors
they meant that the food was cooked. So, you know, it was just
basically safer to eat. It was no longer full of bacteria
and parasites, you know, the way raw meat can be,
especially when you eat as scavengers. So, those that loved those flavors
were more likely to survive. And this is why
we love meat so much today: because it was better for our ancestors. But a piece of meat
is just part of the story. The second part of the story
has to do with our culture and psychology. And once again, it goes back
to almost 2.5 million years ago, to the African savanna. So meat is a very unusual food, especially when you think
about the meat our ancestors ate. It comes in a rather big package
in general, like a zebra-sized package, and it also spoils fast. So as opposed to other foods
that our ancestors were eating, it was a perfect food for sharing. If you got some berries or nuts,
you can just eat all of them by yourself. But with meat not really,
you don’t have a fridge, it’s a food for sharing. So when a hunter/scavenger
brought some meat into the camp, he had power, he had wealth, because he had something
that everybody else wanted. And he could decide
who will get something, who will get the best piece, who will get the smallest piece
or maybe get nothing. So politics began. And the interesting thing is
that our cousins, chimpanzees, they actually also use meat in politics. So when an alpha male
gets hold of a colobus monkey, the kind of meat they eat most often, he’ll exchange it for favors. So kind of, “If you scratch my back,
I’ll give you a piece of meat.” So they use it to form
coalitions, for example. Also, in some groups of chimpanzees, scientists have observed that the males
exchange meat for sex with females. And this connection
between sex and masculinity, it also played for our ancestors. Obviously, it was usually the men
who were scavengers and hunters. They were just you know,
bigger than us women, stronger; they were hunting and scavenging. And they could decide whether women would get
any of this meat that everybody wanted, or maybe they would get nothing. And very often, they did get nothing. Even today, in hunter-gatherer tribes, most meat taboos are directed at women. So most women are forbidden
to eat many meats. There’s one tribe
called Hadza, in Tanzania, in that tribe, women are forbidden
from eating meat called epeme; these are the fattiest, so probably
the tastiest pieces of big game. And the penalty to women for eating
that meat is rape or even death. So those are serious, obviously. So this connection between power
and wealth and masculinity, it got ingrained in our culture
over centuries and millennia. Another reason for that is something
that psychologist Robert Cialdini calls the Scarcity Principle. So the Scarcity Principle basically means
that the more something is harder to get, the more we want it. Marketers know this very well. For example, when you go to a store, and you see an ad saying ,
“Buy now! Only 10 left!” you suddenly want this thing more
because there are only 10 left. And the same thing
was happening with meat. Because for most of human history,
meat was really hard to get. It was scarce and we wanted it even more. In medieval Europe, peasants
barely ever saw any meat. Meanwhile, they observed aristocracy or would hear about aristocracy
stuffing their faces with meat. Sometimes aristocracy in Europe
in the Middle Ages ate little but meat. And so meat became the symbol
of wealth once again, like those white faces
of aristocratic ladies, or their jewelry and their gowns. It was a symbol of wealth. And by now, you may be wondering, How does it all apply to us here, in the 21st century,
in Italy, in the West? When we have an abundance of meat,
we don’t have scarcity of meat, we have as much as we want
here in the West, so why do we still believe in those,
you know, power, wealth and masculinity? Why do we still believe in that? And there, again,
are two reasons for that. The first one is that the cultures
don’t change all that fast. When you think about it, during the 2nd World War,
meat was still scarce in Europe, and in some countries
it was even more recent. When I was a child in Poland,
which wasn’t that long ago, we had such scarcity of meat, we would wait for hours
in long lines with my mother, waiting to get a piece of a sausage. So this is really new history. And the second reason
is the meat industry. So the meat industry
plays on this ancient symbolism and all the old histories
and myths that we had about meat to sell you their products. Their favorite one
is “meat equals masculinity”. So basically, they tell guys
that they need meat to be real men. And in North America, most major chains
of burgers, pizzas, tacos, they did advertisements like that, saying “If you’re a real guy,
you need to eat meat.” There was even one advertisement
for giant SUV cars in the US. And in that advertisement,
you see a vegetarian guy in a store, he buys himself some tofu,
veggies, and all the stuff like that. Suddenly, he stumbles on another guy, who has a cart full of ribs and steak,
all those bloody meats. And you can see the vegetarian kind of
cringe and get smaller and smaller, and suddenly he notices
the ad for the car, and he goes to the car salon,
buys himself this massive car, and then you see him driving away,
all happy now, munching on a carrot, and the original caption said,
“Restore your manhood”. Basically, if you’re a guy
and you’re vegetarian, you need a giant SUV to feel manly again. And another myth
that the meat industry plays on, something that still connects to all this
ancient human history we had with meat, is something called the “protein myth”. So basically, they keep telling us
that just like our ancestors who needed meat for
its protein content, we still do. But the problem with this theory
is that, unlike our ancestors, we have abundant foods for our proteins. We have lentils, we have beans,
we have veggies, we have grains. We are really not short on protein here;
we are not eating grass and leaves. Actually, North Americans eat about twice as much protein
as they should, on average, and it’s not good for their health. Even vegetarians,
once again, are not immune. There’s a study in Poland which showed vegetarians are eating four times
as much protein as they should be. So there’s a question I get
often asked at this point: So what has happened? Why suddenly, meat, which was
such a great food for our ancestors, you know, this high-quality,
nutritious thing, suddenly became something
that’s bad for us? We should be reducing consumption because
it damages our health, what happened?! And the thing that happened is
that our priorities have changed. For our ancestors, the priority was
to survive from one day to the next. They didn’t want to starve,
and meat was great for them, especially when they
didn’t have much choice. We have different priorities. We want to live long, we want to to have long retirements
when we cruise around the globe. And the diseases
that meat is connected with, they usually come out later in life. Our ancestors they didn’t have to worry
about diabetes at the age of 40 or a heart attack at the age of 50 or cancer at 70. They didn’t worry about it;
they worried about survival. So our priorities have changed, but our taste-buds, well,
they didn’t get the memo, really. They didn’t get it. Our brains, they also
didn’t really get it. The meat industry definitely did get it, but they still want
to sell you their products. One thing, though, that we should learn
from our ancestors is how to adapt. When the climate changed in the past,
they changed their diets. And the climate is changing once again,
so we should also change our diets. And we should reduce our meat consumption. Consider just one thing:
If everybody on this planet today said, “We are no longer eating meat,
everyone becomes vegetarian,” from a climate change perspective,
it would be equivalent to all transportation disappearing
from the face of the Earth. So no more cars, no more planes,
no more scooters, no more buses, no more trucks, absolutely nothing. Just imagine the impact. But we don’t want to do that because giving up meat
is really, really hard. In a way, it’s harder than inventing
electric cars or other technology, it’s really, really hard. But I believe that if we understand
how meat keeps us hooked; how all this ancient
expired symbolism plays us and tricks us into believing
that we have to eat meat; how the meat industry
plays on those tunes, telling men, to be real guys,
real men, they have to eat meat, maybe it’ll be easier for us to change,
maybe just a little bit. If we understand how the taste-buds
are tricking us into eating meat, maybe it’ll also be
a little bit easier to change. If you feel like you’re craving a burger, maybe what you are
really craving is protein. Maybe you are craving something fatty or maybe you are craving those
delicious scents of the Maillard reaction, and maybe, for example, a toast with some creamy avocado
and melted cheese on top of it will do? So if we understand, how meat fills us,
how it tricks us in a way, maybe it’ll be easier
to change our diets, even a little bit. Maybe try meatless Mondays, or meatless Sunday afternoon as long as
it’s not raining – whatever works for you. And maybe, you know, just maybe, even vegetarians and vegans
will finally stop eating meat. Thank you. (Applause).

About the Author: Garret Beatty


  1. I'll never get this 15 minutes back.
    Americans eat 4x more than recommended protein a day ya right.
    All this talk on how meat lobbiest 'trick us' yet you say processed and red meats are carcinogenic and use that to make some blanket statement on how all meat, in all forms is bad for us.

  2. I have been a lacto-ovo vegetarian since 1979. I would have become a vegetarian years before, but was forced to eat meat until moving out of state at age 15 with my Dad, who respected my disgust with eating dead animals. I have NEVER wanted to eat meat since then. The only lingering craving I have had is for the seasonings associated with bacon. I buy hickory smoked walnuts, smoky barbecue sauce and imitation bacon bits. Please don't judge me. It's not my business what you eat, and not my business what you eat. I have had so many meat-eaters challenge my food choices, whilst I really don't care what others choose to eat.

  3. Since going vegan (for ethical reasons) 12 – 15 years ago, I have never craved nor eaten meat, dairy or eggs. Perhaps people who go vegan for health reasons are more prone to "slip" and eat animals or their "products" than those who choose a vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons.

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