Accepted abstract - Creative Tastebuds Symposium 2020

 

To Meat or not to Meat - Is the Taste of Sustainability Black and White?

Opinion paper

By Louise Beck Brønnum ab*, Asmus Gamdrup Jensenb, Peter Nøhr Christensenb, Taryn Cullen Humphreyc & Charlotte Vinther Schmidta*. aUniversity of Copenhagen, Department of Food Science; bKost kbh; cShiso Studio, Frederiksberg, Denmark. *These authors contributed equally to the work.

Sustainability is to be found on everyone’s lips when talking about food for the future. We have sustainability on our lips, but how does it actually taste? As with all other things regarding food, it is common to have an opinion about it, even though not scientifically founded. Furthermore, the opinions towards sustainable food production and consumption seem to be absolute; but one could ask oneself, is the taste of sustainability black and white? We will argue that an interdisciplinary approach and reflection to understand sustainability is needed, where also taste is included, in order to navigate the jungle of sustainability talk.

Environmental sustainability is greatly influenced by food production and consumption. According to the Lancet Foundation 2019, food production is the largest cause of global environmental change as it adds to climate change, loss in biodiversity, use of freshwater, change in land-system and interfere with the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles (Willett and Rockström 2019). Sustainability is composed of three areas being economic, social and environmental (Spiller and Nitzko 2014), where environmental sustainability is the area that receives the most attention today. Looking into possible solutions, one may especially be prone to focus more on the environmental aspect of sustainability, rather than the social and economic aspects (Lorek and Vergragt 2014). However, all aspects are important to our motivation to make and sustain much-needed changes as well as being important to the perceived taste of what we eat. Therefore, environmental sustainability will be discussed in light of social and economic sustainability and we will seek to encourage an interdisciplinary approach to possible solutions of how to get consumers to make more conscious food choices.

Historically, sustainability as a word of concept was used for the first time to conserve nature's beauty in 1713. The focus of sustainability shifted towards sustaining a growing population at the end of the 19th century. Common for both, whether related to nature or people, sustainability is not a prelapsarian state, but rather to be seen as a crisis causing unbalance between nature and economy (Chappells and Trentmann 2014). Can we learn anything related to food from previous crises? Though every historical event has its own course of action and logic, it is far from the first time in history that crisis has had an impact on our food production and food culture. In a complex mix of events in the second half of the 19th century, with a global crisis in the food sector at its core, Danish agriculture and food production changed dramatically within a few decades (Bjørn 1982). Though this crisis was at first an economic crisis, it seems obvious that both food traditions, organizational models, power relations, export markets, technology and taste had an impact on the development of new food products at that time. New food products and food restriction caused by crises also influences our personal food choice trajectory. A situation or context that influences a life-course transition of our eating behaviour. It can be either a minor or radical transition, such as starting to eat less meat rather than becoming a vegetarian (Sobal et al. 2006). Both transitions are a change in our personal value system, and how we make food choices in the future. However, of all the values we might have, taste is to be seen as the most dominant and therefore not to be overlooked (Sobal et al. 2006). Transition, when it comes to sustainability, seems to be rather radical, such as eating meat or not. But is it a sustainable value that can become an integrated change in our personal food choice system or do we somehow neglect the value of taste?

Sustaining a tasty balance

Current tendencies related to environmental sustainability include whether to eat meat (Laestadius et al. 2013). Various studies investigating different diets’ impact on environmental sustainability has also been linked to our eating behaviour in a systematic review by Chai et al. (2019). Examples in the review show that eating as an omnivore, if based on plant-rich diets such as a Mediterranean diet, is not necessarily less sustainable than eating a vegetarian or vegan diet; it depends on the chosen foods within each diet. Spiller and Nitzko (2014) argue that the growth of meat consumption is due to the growing middle class in developing countries, seeing meat consumption as a point of high social status. If applying a “less but better” approach towards meat, both reducing risk of developing diseases and providing the necessary nutrients, could secure environmental protection goals to be met on a global scale (Spiller and Nitzko 2014). On the other hand, it could be argued that suggesting a reduction in meat consumption without reflecting on the integration and change of food, may cause people to falsely believe that they have done enough by cutting down meat consumption just a little. Therefore, a cross-disciplinary approach to changing towards a sustainable meat consumption is essential in finding the right balance of consumption. A systemic change that will have to encompass simultaneous changes in culture, production processes, consumption patterns, lifestyles, economics and politics (Lorek and Vergragt 2014). But what about taste? A systemic change in our meat consumption, we argue, will also have to include an understanding of how tastes might be suppressed or, in the absence of anything better, be left out. 

Maintaining taste

If meat has to be either displaced or minimized on our plates, we may expect a lower stimulus of umami taste from our meals unless we apply science and knowledge about umami. Basic umami taste is obtained by the presence of the free amino acids, glutamic acid and aspartic acid (Mouritsen et al. 2014; Yamaguchi et al. 1971). The threshold value of basic umami is lowered by the simultaneous presence of specific nucleotides (inosine monphosphate, guanosine monophosphate), which by themselves do not elicit umami taste. By combining meals with food containing both glutamate and nucleotides, synergistic umami taste is formed, providing better taste to the total eating experience and giving associations to the taste of meat. Hence, one would not get the feeling of missing the meat as much on the plate.

In countries where vegetarianism and low meat consumption is common, such as India, much of the stable plant-based food has undertaken some kind of fermentation, such as dosa and hawijar (Spiller and Nitzko 2014; Somishon Keishing 2013; Tamang et al. 2016). In other countries where meat is scarce, we see that varieties of fermented sauces and pastes are used in creating a taste giving associations to meat taste or alike (Lee and Kim 2016). Even chefs, such as Dan Barber, acknowledge the change of our eating habits towards more plant-based diet and gives meat a new role on the plate (Barber 2014). Cooking it all down, the essence of it all is to maintain umami taste. Umami taste is essential when reducing or not eating meat at all. It should not be neglected to have an impact on our final sensory experience and acceptance of the food we eat. Therefore, an understanding of other ingredients’ possibility to create umami through processes such as fermentation or synergies between meat and other plant-based ingredients is key. It is through the understanding of umami and deliciousness we will see an indirect promoting of biodiversity, responsibility and understanding of our ingredients.

Conclusion

Sustainable taste is not only a concept of what to eat or not in accordance with the climate. The sustainable taste should be, as with so many other things regarding life, approached interdisciplinary in order to obtain a sustainable balance. If we want to find the right balance between humans and nature, we need to learn from history, including the fact that all perspectives are needed. If the sustainability crises now demand us to treat our nature with respect, we should not keep on forcing nature to produce to our taste preferences and needs. Instead, we should use our creativity, scientific knowledge, history and taste buds to produce delicious food promoting a biodiverse nature. A suggestion could be using various fermented sauces and pastes enhancing the taste of umami when eating more plant-based diets. In general, we suggest to treat meat consumption in a manner that is not so black and white, e.g. like a method of meal seasoning, and reducing portion size rather than placing it at the center of the dish or not use it at all. That is the balance we believe not only can give future generations a sustaining planet to live on but also future foods full of diverse flavours. Because life without tasty food is like a movie without a story.

 

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