Poorer people eat more meat to feel affluent, new study claims

A new study shows that the worse off you think you are, the more likely you are to choose the steak over the garden salad.

  • A new study shows that people with lower social status tend to desire meat more than people who are better off.
  • There is a symbolic association between eating meat and strength, power and masculinity.
  • Fighting this bias will improve public health.

Humans have long associated eating meat with affluence. Even today, people with lower social status tend to desire meat more than people who are better off as a result of this old attitude. This, according to a new study from Dr. Eugene Chan and Dr. Natalina Zlatevska, could be a significant concern for advertisers, doctors, and food stores.

The study, published in the appropriately titled journal Appetite, suggests that we still associate meat with status and that the lower you are on the social scale, the more likely you are to ask for the steak than the veggie burger.

How did they prove this?

Over the course of several tests, the researchers found that the desire for meat was connected to a person's preserved status and not the item in question, nutritional value of the food, or the how hungry the test subject was at that moment.

One test experiment involved showing subjects the packaging of the “beast burger," which was described as having either a meat or vegetable patty and asking them how much they wanted to eat it. As expected, the subjects who ranked lower on the social scale had a much higher desire for the meat-based burger than the vegetable one despite the similar packaging and nutritional information.

In every case, the worse off a person claimed to be the more likely they were to favor the meat-based dish. Individuals who supposed themselves higher on the social ladder were nearly as likely to choose the vegetable item as the meat one.

Why do we do this? Why do some people really want meat dishes?

Dr. Zlatevska explained:

“There is a symbolic association between eating meat and strength, power and masculinity. It is traditionally a high-status food, brought out for guests or as the centerpiece of festive occasions, so we wanted to better understand this link to status."

Dr. Chan added:

"Our research reveals that while eating meat appears to confer feelings of power and status, this may have health implications for those who see themselves as lower on the socio-economic ladder."

Since the study took care to control for factors such as the subject's current mood or the food's nutritional value, the researchers conclude that “the results suggest a symbolic link between meat and status" that some people are influenced by when making dietary choices.

Given that for most of history poor people have gone without regular access to meat, this makes some sense. However, given the dramatically increased availability of processed meats over the last few decades this connection can lead to choices that are bad for our health for the sake of feeling a bit more affluent.

So, people eat meat to feel more affluent. How can we use this information?

Since research shows that eating too much red meat is terrible for us, this tendency towards meat could have adverse health effects that are difficult to counter.

As the study showed people were unconcerned by the equal nutritional value between meat and non-meat options, attempts to improve the public's health might have to play up the increased risk of death correlated with eating too much red meat to actually succeed in getting some people to eat less of it.

Doctors encouraging people to cut down on red meat might find it easier to get through to people now that they know why they are inclined to eat so much of it. Policy makers concerned about the state of public health will also find it useful to know that the worst off in society have a bias towards eating meat that will be difficult to change.

The study was carried out by marketing psychologists, all but assuring the next wave of food advertisements will capitalize on this phenomenon. It might also explain the extreme prevalence of meat in commercials for fast food chains and mid-tier casual restaurants we already see.

For much of human history, meat was an item reserved for the rich and powerful, or something saved for a special occasion. This seems to have remained in our culture and psychology long after meat became widely available.

While it is all but assured that advertisers will capitalize on this now that they are aware of it, there is also the chance that we will use this to improve our eating habits. In the meantime, I think I'm going to get a hamburger.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
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