Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, devises the ultimate vegan answer to the common remark “I like the taste of meat” people say as an excuse for not becoming vegan

I hated it the first time I tasted it.

It might have been in the early 1970s when my father bought me a bottle of tonic water on a beach as they had run out of cola. I thought it was going to be sparkling water, so when I put it in my mouth, I spit it up in disgust. I was caught by surprise by the bitter taste, and I hated it. I remember very distinctively thinking that I could not understand how people could like this bitter liquid, as it tasted like poison (I did not know that the bitterness came from quinine, an anti-malaria compound that comes from the cinchona tree). A few years later I tried my first beer, and I had a similar reaction. It was bitter! However, cut to my late teens, I was drinking tonic water and beer like a pro.

Now, one of my favourite foods is Brussels sprouts — known for their bitter taste — and I find cola drinks far too sweet. What happened to my sense of taste? How could I dislike something at one time, and like it later?

It’s funny how taste works, is it not? We even use the verb taste when it affects other senses. We ask about what is someone’s taste in music, the taste in men, the taste in fashion. This verb seems to have acquired some power beyond the sensation experienced in our tongues and palates. Even when vegans like myself go out on the street to do a bit of vegan outreach trying to help strangers stop supporting animal exploitation and adopt the vegan philosophy for everyone’s benefit, we often get responses using this feral verb. We often hear, “I could never be vegan because I like the taste of meat too much”.

If you think about it, this is a strange answer. It’s like trying to stop someone driving a car into a crowded shopping mall and the person saying, “I cannot stop, I like the colour red too much!”. Why do people give such an answer to a stranger clearly concerned by the suffering of others? Since when taste is a valid excuse for anything?

Strange these sorts of replies may sound to me, I think it is worth deconstructing a little bit why people used the “taste of meat” excuse, and compiling a sort of ultimate vegan answer to this common remark, in case this is useful to vegan outreachers out there trying to save the world.

Taste Is Relative

shutterstock_2019900770

My experience with tonic water or beer is not unique. Most children dislike bitter foods and drinks, and love (to the point of obsession) sweet foods. Every parent knows this — and has at one point or another used the power of sweetness to control their child’s behaviour. 

It’s all in our genes. There is an evolutionary advantage for a child to hate bitter foods. We, humans, are just a type of ape, and apes, like most primates, give birth to young who climb on the mother and spend some time growing up while the mother carries them through the forest or savannah. At first, they have just been breastfed, but at one point they will have to learn to eat solid food. How do they do that? By just looking at what the mother eats and trying to imitate her. But this is the problem. It would not be difficult for curious baby primates, especially if they are on their mother’s back, to reach for a fruit or a leave trying to eat it without their mothers realising it, and as not all plants are edible (some may even be poisonous) the mothers may not be able to stop them all the time. This is a risky situation that needs to be dealt with.

Evolution has provided the solution, though. It has made anything that is not a ripened edible fruit taste bitter to a baby primate, and for that baby to consider the bitter taste as a disgusting taste. As I did when I first tried tonic water (aka cinchona tree bark), this makes the babies spit what they put in their mouth, avoiding any potential poison. Once that baby grows up and has learnt what is proper food, then this exaggerated reaction to bitterness is no longer needed. However, one of the characteristics of the human primate is neoteny (the retention of juvenile features in the adult animal), so we may keep this reaction a few years longer than other apes. 

This tells us something interesting. Firstly, that taste changes with age, and what may be tasty at one time of our life, may no longer be tasty later — and the other way around. Secondly, that taste has both a genetic component and a learnt component, which means that experience affects it (you may not like something at first but, by trying it, “it grows on you.” So, if a vegan sceptic tells us that they like the taste of meat so much that could not bear the thought of not eating meat, there is one easy reply you can give: taste changes

The average human has 10,000 taste buds in its mouth, but with age, from 40 years of age on, these stop regenerating, and the sense of taste then dulls. The same happens with the sense of smell, which also plays a vital role in the “taste experience”. Evolutionary speaking, the role of smell in eating is to be able to find a good source of food later (as smells are remembered very well), and at a certain distance. The sense of smell is much better at telling the difference between food than the sense of taste because it requires working at a distance, so it needs to be more sensitive. In the end, the memory we have about the taste of the food is a combination of how the food tasted and smelled, so when you say “I like the taste of meat”, you are saying “I like the taste and smell of meat”, to be precise. However, as with the taste buds, age also affects our scent receptors, which means that, with time, our taste inevitably and considerably changes.  

Therefore, the foods we find tasty or disgusting when we are young are different to those we like or hate during adulthood, and these also change from the time we reach middle age and keep changing every year since because our senses are changing. All that plays games in our brains and makes it difficult for us to be accurate about what we like or not taste-wise. We remember what we used to hate and like and we assume we still do, and as it happens gradually, we don’t quite notice how our sense of taste is changing. In consequence, one cannot use the memory of  “taste” as an excuse not to eat something in the present, because that memory will be unreliable and today you could stop liking the taste of something you used to like, and begin to like something you hated. 

People get habituated to their food, and it’s not only about taste preferences. It’s not that people “like” the taste of food in the strict sense of the word, but rather get used to the sensorial experience of a particular combination of taste, smell, texture, sound, and look, and a conceptual experience of the combination of valued tradition, assumed nature, pleasant memory, perceived nutritional value, gender-appropriateness, cultural association, and social context — in informing choice, the meaning of the food may be more important than the sensory experience from it (as in Carol J Adams book The Sexual Politics of Meat). Changes in any of these variables can create a different experience, and sometimes people are afraid of new experiences and prefer to stick to what they already know 

Taste is changeable, relative, and overrated, and cannot be the basis of transcendent decisions.

Non-Meat Tastes Better

shutterstock_560830615

I once saw a documentary that left a strong impression on me. It was about the Belgium anthropologist Jean Pierre Dutilleux meeting for the first time in 1993 people of the Toulambis tribe of Papua New Guinea, who seemed to never have encountered any white person before. How the people of two cultures first met and how they communicated with each other was fascinating, with the Toulambis being scared and aggressive at the beginning, and then more relaxed and friendly. To gain their trust, the anthropologist offered some food to them. He cooked some white rice for himself and his crew and offered it to the Toulambis. When they tried it, they rejected it in disgust (I am not surprised, as white rice, as opposed to wholemeal rice — the only one I eat now — is quite a processed food. But here comes the interesting thing. The anthropologist added some salt to the rice, and gave it back to them, and this time they loved it.

What’s the lesson here? That salt can trick your senses and make you like things that you would not naturally like. In other words, salt (which most doctors would recommend you should avoid in big quantities) is a cheating ingredient that messes with your natural instinct to identify good food. If salt is not good for you (the sodium in it if you don’t have enough potassium, to be precise), why do we like it so much? Well, because it’s only bad for you in big quantities. In low quantities, it’s essential to replenish the electrolytes we may lose through sweating or urination, so it is adaptative to like salt and get it when we need it. But carrying it with you all the time and adding it to all food is not when we need it, and as sources of salt in Nature are rare for primates like us, we did not evolve a natural way to stop taking it (we don’t seem to have an aversion to salt when we have got enough of it).

Salt is not the only ingredient with such cheating properties. There are two others with similar effects: refined sugar (pure sucrose) and unsaturated fats, both sending the message to your brain that this food has lots of calories and therefore your brain makes you like them (as in Nature you will not find high calorific food that often). If you add salt, refined sugar, or saturated fat to anything, you can make it tasty to anyone. You will trigger the “emergency food” alert in your brain that makes you trump any other flavour as if you had found a treasure you urgently need to collect. Worst of all, if you add the three ingredients at the same time, you can even make poison appetising to the point people would keep eating it until they die.

This is what modern food production does, and this is why people keep dying by eating unhealthy foods. Salt, saturated fats, and refined sugars are the three addictive “evils” of modern food, and the pillars of ultra-processed fast food that doctors keep asking us to move away from. All the millennium wisdom of the Toulambis was thrown away with a sprinkle of that “magic” taste disruptor, luring them into the food trap modern civilisations are snared in. 

However, these three “devils” do something more than just change our taste: they numb it, overpowering it with ultra-sensations, so we gradually lose the ability to taste anything else and miss the subtilities of flavours available to us. We become addicted to these three domineering ingredients, and we feel that, without them, everything tastes bland now. The good thing is that this process can be reversed, and if we reduce the intakes of these three disruptors, we recover the sense of taste — which I can testify happened to me when I switched from just a generic vegan diet to a Whole Foods Plant Based diet with less processing and less salt. 

So, when people say they love the taste of meat, do they really, or they have also been bewitched by salt or fat? Well, you know the answer, right? People do not love the taste of raw meat. In fact, most humans would vomit if you made them eat it. You need to change the taste, the texture, and the smell of it to make it appetising, so when people say they like meat, they actually like what you did to the meat to remove its actual taste. The cooking process did part of that because by removing water with heat, the cook concentrated the salts present in the animals’ tissues. The heat also changed the fat making it crunchier, adding some new texture. And, of course, the cook would have added extra salt and spices to increase the effect or add more fat (oil during frying, for instance. That may not be enough, though. Meat is so disgusting to humans (as we are a frugivore species like our closest relatives), that we also have to change its shape and make it look more like fruit (making it soft and round like a peach or long like a banana, for instance), and serve it with vegetables and other plant ingredients to disguise it —  carnivore animals don’t season the flesh they eat as they like it as it is.  

For instance, we disguise the muscle of the leg of a bull by removing the blood, skin, and bones, smashing it all together, creating a ball with it that we flatten from one end, adding salt and spices and burning it to reduce the water content and alter the fat and protein, and then placing it between two pieces of round bread made of wheat grain and sesame seeds so everything looks like a spherical juicy fruit, put some plants like cucumbers, onion, and lettuce in between, and add some tomato sauce to make it look redder. We make a burger from a cow and enjoy eating it because it no longer tastes like raw meat, and it kind of looks like fruit. We do the same with chickens, making them into nuggets in which no flesh is longer visible as we cover them with wheat, fat, and salt. 

Those who say they love the taste of meat think they do, but they don’t. They love how cooks have changed the taste of meat and made it taste different. They love how salt and modified fat mask the taste of meat and make it closer to the taste of non-meat. And guess what? Cooks can do the same with plants and make them taste more appetising to you with salt, sugar and fat, as well as changing them to the shapes and colours you prefer. Vegan cooks can make vegan burgers, sausages, and nuggets too, as sweet, as salty, and as fatty as you like them if this is what you want — after more than 20 years of being vegan, I don’t anymore, by the way. 

In the second decade of the 21st century, there is no longer an excuse for claiming that taste is what prevents you from becoming vegan as for every non-vegan dish or food, there is a vegan version that most people would find identical if they were not told that is vegan (as we saw in 2022 when a UK anti-vegan “sausage expert” was tricked on live TV into saying a vegan sausage was “luscious and lovely” and that he could “taste the meat in it”, as he was made to believe it was from real pig meat).

So, another answer to the remark “I cannot be vegan because I like the taste of meat too much” is the following: “Yes you can, because you do not like the taste of meat, but the taste of what cooks and chefs make from it, and the same chefs can recreate the same tastes, smells, and textures you like but without using any animal flesh. Clever carnivorous chefs tricked you into liking their meat dishes, and even more clever vegan chefs can also trick you into liking plant-based dishes (they don’t have to as many plants are already delicious without processing, but they do it for you so you can keep your addictions if you want to). If you don’t let them trick your taste as you let carnivorous chefs, then taste has nothing to do with your reluctance to become vegan, but prejudice.”

The Ethics of Taste

shutterstock_1422665513

This double standard of treating processed vegan food as suspicious but accepting processed non-vegan foods reveals that the rejection of veganism has nothing to do with taste. It shows that those using this excuse believe veganism is a “choice” in the sense that is an inconsequential personal opinion, just a matter of “taste” in the non-sensorial meaning of the word, and somehow then translate this erroneous interpretation using the “taste of meat” remark thinking they have given a good excuse. They are mixing up the two meanings of “taste” without realising how ridiculous this sounds from the outside (as the “I cannot stop, I like the colour red too much” example I mentioned earlier). 

It is precisely because they think veganism is a fashion trend or a trivial choice that they do not apply any ethical considerations associated with it, and this is when they went wrong. They don’t know that veganism is a philosophy that seeks to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty to animals, so vegans eat plant-based food not because they prefer the taste of it over the taste of meat or dairy (even if they may do), but because they consider that is morally wrong to consume (and pay for) a product that comes from animal exploitation. Vegans’ rejection of meat is an ethical issue, not a taste issue, so this must be pointed out to those who use the “taste of meat” excuse.

They need to be confronted with ethical questions that expose the absurdity of their remark. For instance, what is more important, taste or life? Do you think it is ethically acceptable to kill anyone because of how they taste? Or because of how they smell? Or because of how they look? Or because of how they sound? Would you kill and consume humans if they were cooked to taste very good to you? Would you eat your leg if it was cut by the best butchers and cooked by the best chefs in the world? Do your taste buds matter more than the life of a sentient being? 

The truth is that there is nobody who rejects veganism (or vegetarianism) only because they like the taste of meat too much, despite what they would say. They say it because it’s easy to say and they think it sounds like a good answer, as nobody can argue against someone’s taste, but when they are confronted with the absurdity of their own words and are made to realise that the question is not “What do you like?” but “What is morally right?”, they probably will try to find a better excuse. Once you connect the dots between a steak and a cow, a sausage and a pig, a nugget and a chicken, or a melted sandwich and a tuna fish, you cannot disconnect them and carry on with your life as if you haven’t done anything wrong when treating these animals as food.  

Compassionate Food

shutterstock_1919346809

Vegan sceptics are notorious for using stereotypical excuses they have heard somewhere without thinking too much about their merits because they tend to hide their true reasons why they have not become vegan yet. They may use the remarks “ Plants feel pain too”, “I could never go vegan”, “It’s the circle of life”, “Canines, though”, and “Where do you get your protein from” — and I have written articles compiling the ultimate vegan answer for all of these too — to hide the fact that the true reason they are not vegan is moral laziness, poor self-steam, creeping insecurity, fear of change, lack of agency, obstinate denial, political stands, antisocial prejudice, or simply unchallenged habit. 

So, what is the ultimate vegan answer for this one? Here it comes:

“Taste changes with time, it is relative, and often overrated, and cannot be the basis of important decisions, such as the life or death of someone else. Your taste buds cannot matter more than the life of a sentient being. But even if you think that you cannot live without the taste of meat, that should not stop you from becoming vegan because you do not like the taste of meat per se, but the taste, smell, sound and looks of what cooks and chefs make from it, and the same chefs can recreate the same tastes, smells, and textures you like but without using any animal flesh. If taste is your main obstacle to becoming vegan, then this is easy to overcome, as your favourite dishes already exist in vegan form, and you would not notice the difference.”

If you are not vegan, know that, most likely, you have not tasted your all-time favourite food yet. After some time looking, everyone who has become vegan has found their favourite food among the huge number of plant-based combinations they now have access to, and that was hidden from them by a few monotonous carnist dishes that numbed their palate and cheated their taste (there are many more edible plants people can make delicious meals from than the very few animals people eat). Once you have adapted to your new diet and have eliminated your old addictions, vegan food not only will taste better to you than what you used to prefer, but now it will feel better too. 

No food tastes better than compassionate food, because it not only can have your favourite flavours and textures, but it means something good and important too. Have a look at any social media account of a person who has been vegan for a few years and you will discover what enjoying ethical nutritious, delicious, colourful, and appetising food is all about — compared with unethical boring unhealthy burned flesh seasoned with pain, suffering, and death. 

I love vegan food.

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.