There's nothing quite like biting into a rich bar of dark chocolate, produced organically, by workers who were treated fairly, right? Ethical foods just taste better.
Or do they?
A study recently published in the journal Appetite has found that foods believed to be produced more ethically—as designated by terms on food labels like "fair trade" and "organic"—can actually taste better than their unrighteous counterparts, even if the labels are bogus.
To test the theory, Dundee Business School's Dr. Boyka Bratanova and her co-authors presented identical food products (apple juice, breakfast biscuits, and chocolates) for consumers to taste and score, stating that some of the items were ethically produced and some were not. As a result, Bratanova and her colleagues discovered that some people can "feel a sense of moral satisfaction when buying and consuming food they believe is produced in ethical ways and as a result enjoy the taste of that food better."
Bratanova points out that only when a consumer believes ethical food is important does the moral satisfaction and perceived greater taste occur. "If they don't value the reasons behind fair trade or organic food production, then they will not experience the moral satisfaction effect." However, she also states that "if you are interested in animals being raised humanely or farms being run on organic principles, then it seems you are able to gain even more enjoyment from eating that ethical food."
Of course, whether chocolate is fair trade or apple juice is organic doesn't typically have any effect on the food's actual level of nutrition, quality, or physical taste. Nonetheless, the study states that by simply labeling foods as more ethical, the expectation of better taste can be created.
It is the experience of both tasting delicious food, along with feeling holier-than-thou while doing so, that acts as the grand reward.
In turn, that expectation "is likely to enhance the gustatory experience when the food is actually consumed." For food marketers, this is a big deal.
Na'eem Adam, a popular food marketing pro from Montreal, says, "Consumer behavior is suggesting that people would rather know more than less when it comes to what they eat." And when it comes to food labeling, "we are creating honest stories about where the food comes from. If this story has a chapter about being ethically sourced, it should be included. To position it as tasting better as a result, I believe that should be left to the consumer, as it will always vary depending on the social and personal belief systems we live by. Does all this add to the story? Yes. And do stories help sell? Yes."
And when pitting ethical eating against other eco-friendly endeavors—like recycling or donating to charity—the study's survey of consumer behavior, over the last ten years, shows that nothing is nearly as a popular as eating our way to morality. The authors' reasoning: a double whammy for the human reward system; not only are we feeding ourselves superior tasting foods, but we are also helping the world in the process.
"Buying or consuming food of ethical origin presents a readily available opportunity for people to attain moral satisfaction by supporting a cause they consider important," the authors states.
"The food then becomes not only a source of nutrition and gustatory enjoyment but also a physical artefact symbolising the contribution." It is this experience of both tasting delicious food, along with feeling holier-than-thou while doing so, that acts as the grand reward—a reward that then influences consumers to continue dishing out the big bucks for even more ethical foods.
Just as vegans and vegetarians can lose the taste for meat due to a belief that it is morally heinous, so too can consumers develop an affinity for certain foods due their belief that it is morally awesome.
"This enhanced tastiness in turn leads to stronger intentions to buy that food in the future and willingness to pay more for it," Bratanova says.
Dr. Stephan J. Guyenet, a researcher and writer focusing on the neuroscience of eating behavior, says that to get an even clearer understanding of our brain's ability to determine our enjoyment of certain foods, we can also look to the other end of the spectrum. "Within the vegetarian and vegan community, there is a culture of trying to associate meat with objectionable things to counter the natural affinity for meat, images of tortured chickens, talking about parasites in meat, salmonella, feces, etc." he explains.
"Vegetarians and vegans often develop a visceral aversion to the taste of meat because they associate it with the abstract concepts of animal suffering, environmental damage, or increased chronic disease risk." In other words, just as vegans and vegetarians can lose the taste for meat due to a belief that it is morally heinous, so too can consumers develop an affinity for certain foods due their belief that it is morally awesome. "This suggests to me that our cognitive brain has the ability to modulate the brain regions that determine our enjoyment of food."
In the end, if we gluttonous virtue-seekers think a food tastes better, and it does in fact help the world in some way, who cares whether or not it is actually superior? Well, food producers do. Studies like this (and this one) can have a great impact on the future of food and drink production.
As the demand for ethical foods only grows, such research will help organic and fair trade food producers better measure the return on their altruistic investment, and will encourage them to keep dishing out the truly good stuff.