When “Meat” Becomes Meat

Until recently, I spent the past couple of years as a social worker. Since February 2016, I provided community-based outreach to individuals in the Boston area suffering from serious mental illness (think bipolar disorder, major depression, etc.). I enjoyed the job considerably despite the fact that I never intended to be a social worker; I wanted experience working with a population of individuals that are frequently recruited as participants in psychological and psychiatric research — the field that I really wish to wade into.

During my tenure in social work, I worked with a client who suffers from Capgras delusion: the belief that people around you have been replaced by imposters. I didn’t know there was a term for it at the time, which I imagine isn’t much consolation anyway, but I could see first-hand the considerable distress such a delusion causes in those afflicted — who are typically paranoid schizophrenics to begin with.

Recently I realized that our taste buds experience an analogue to this delusion.

I reported in a previous post that I tried vegetarianism for a week as a sort of challenge. I found after a week that my taste buds changed so much that, after seven days, I found the taste and texture of meat to be positively disgusting. And there it was: I became vegetarian. 18 months or so later, I went vegan.

In fact, our taste buds appear to be so plastic that we can completely forget how foods like meat, cheese, and eggs taste. While this may sound sad to those who consume these products, it’s actually quite incredible. What ends up happening is that, after some period of time of not eating animal products, foods like imitation meats, soy milk, plant-based mayo, and others, taste just like their animal-based counterparts.

But not only do they taste like the animal products they’re meant to emulate, they actually are those things, in a very meaningful way.

When you remove something like chicken from your diet, you will forget what it tastes like after about a month or so. Not only that — it will actually taste very different from how you remember it. Here’s where items like Gardein chicken tenders or Beyond Meat chicken strips come into play: they taste like how you remember chicken tasting. In other words, your mental representation of meat, after some time of not having it, is skewed such that the real thing is no longer what you hoped it would be. The fake chicken becomes more real than the actual chicken.

This is like the Capgras delusion. The thing you are eating is impersonating the real thing to such an extent that they occupy the same head space. You might even find it difficult to believe that what you are eating isn’t real meat — a mistake that no meat eater could reasonably make. (I remember opening a pizza with jackfruit topping and staring in disbelief as I was completely convinced that we picked up the wrong order.)

I am not even sure of the overall point I am trying to make here. I suppose that the fact that this is likely a common experience of vegans and vegetarians alike illustrates how malleable our taste buds are, and how much easier veganism is than you think. When you go vegan, you don’t have to give up your favorite foods; you find that they change — in more than one sense — along with your taste buds. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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