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Happy Animals Make for Tastier Meat—or at Least We Like to Think They Do

That grass-fed beef and free-range pork you just paid top dollar for? There’s a reason you’re so satisfied when you buy it, according to a new study.

If you’re a discerning carnivore, there’s a good chance you don’t mind plunking down a little extra money for higher-quality meat. Free-range, grass-fed, that kind of thing: only the best for your dinner table.

After all, it definitely tastes better—right? Or do our beliefs about how meat is raised affect how we think it tastes?

To test that theory, Northeastern University psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., and study co-author Eric Anderson, Ph.D., of Tufts University, designed three experiments. They set out meat samples for testers—beef jerky in the first test, roast beef in the second, and thick-cut ham in the third. Some of the samples were described as “factory farmed,” others were labeled as “humanely farmed,” and a control group had no label. In the ham experiment, the researchers added “evocative” text and photos of animals to the labels.

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Depending on the experiment, tasters sampled both labels of jerky, one label of beef, or an unlabeled piece of ham followed by one of the labeled pieces of ham.

In every case, the “factory farmed” meat got worse ratings for appearance, smell, taste, and overall enjoyment than the “humanely farmed” meat. Participants even thought the “factory farmed” ham tasted saltier, greasier, and staler.

The catch? All the meat they’d tasted was identical. The only difference had been on the labels.

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Here's Why We Think That Way

“We show that what you feel very directly influ­ences not only how you inter­pret what you see but also very lit­er­ally what you see,” said Barrett, a specialist in the psychology of emotion. 

Barrett also guessed that people had a tendency to empathize with the animals that gave up the ghost for the sake of dinner. “Beliefs that meat came from ani­mals that suf­fered would be rep­re­sented, in part, in regions of the brain that are asso­ci­ated with embodied sim­u­la­tion of ani­mals’ experience,” she wrote in the research paper, which was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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What It Means for Your Grocery Shopping Routine

Now, these findings may not necessarily change what kinds of meat you buy at the grocery store. If you were inclined to buy “free-range” or “humanely raised” meat before, you probably had your reasons—maybe “it makes me feel better about it” was one of them. Fine.

But smart consumers who care about the quality of their meat—both the taste and how it's raised—should definitely pay attention to this study, if only because food companies now have scientific proof that they can charge more for food just by slapping some good marketing terms on it.

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“Free range” and “roaming," for example, are only USDA standards for poultry, so if you see that term on beef products, make sure you ask the butcher where it comes from. Strictly speaking, "grass-fed" beef can only come from select small farms that apply for a special program—the USDA ended its regulation of the term in January 2016—so be sure you're supporting the right farmers when you buy it, and don't be afraid to ask what farms it comes from if your waiter drops the term at a fancy restaurant. Make sure you know what the "organic" label actually entails. And if you want "humanely raised" food, you should search for the "Certified Humane" label administered by the organization Humane Farm Animal Care.

All this is not to say that you should ignore those terms. On the contrary: It means you need to go the extra mile to sort the beef from the bullshit.

The Bottom Line

Take a close look at the labels on your meat and make sure you know what they mean. Otherwise, you could just be paying extra for marketing terms—or even buying factory-farmed meat—without knowing it.

“Beliefs are really pow­erful. Words are really pow­erful. They influ­ence what you do, often in sur­prising ways,” Barrett wrote in the research paper.

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