How much does the name of food influence its consumption?

Can you imagine going back two or three generations and inviting our grandparents or great-great-grandparents to eat a hamburger? What would their reaction be? They might not even know what kind of food we are talking about and, if they did, they would probably not be very receptive as they would associate it with fast food far removed from their traditions. Perhaps if we replaced the term hamburger with Russian steak or minced beef, their reaction would be very different, won’t they?

It is just one example of the extent to which the name we give to food can influence our decision to eat it or not. The hamburger has had a very particular history in Spain, maybe because of its gastronomy culture. In the beginning, it was considered a fast food product. Today it has found its way onto the menus of many restaurants willing to compete for the best hamburger in the place, made with very high-quality meat and even turned into a signature dish in which chefs of all styles display their creativity.

How many people have ‘mistakenly’ tasted a ‘steak tartar’ without knowing 100% that they were dealing with a raw meat or fish dish? Would they have done so if it had called only ‘raw steak’?

We constantly make linguistic associations for socio-cultural reasons that influence our perception of things and, above all, create certain prejudices in the face of unfamiliar and novel products that, simply because they are new, we consider harmful to our health. We are reluctant to change, and sometimes this is a barrier in the food sector as in others. However, the sustainability of our food system today faces challenges that require immediate responses.

The production needed to feed the world’s growing population leads to overexploitation of natural resources that take an ever-increasing toll on our environment. Relying on the benefits of technology applied to the food sector is more necessary than ever to respond to international commitments such as the European Green Deal. As the demand for protein increases, there is an urgent need to look for nutrients and alternatives to diversify food options for the global population. The cultivation of animal cells and the extraction of plant protein for food production are some of these innovative solutions that, thanks to biotechnology, allow us to minimize the risks of animal-borne diseases and reduce the pollution generated by our current food system. The cultured meat we work on at Ethicameat offers an animal-friendly system and contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the use of water and soil, all of which are essential resources for our survival. The aim of this, and other alternative sources of protein, is to make products available to the consumer that allows us to have a more balanced, and consequently more sustainable, food production system.

In the US, it has been agreed to call meat produced from seafood cells cell-cultured. It has been recently announced by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a long discussion with the major players in the industry. As early as the end of 2020, the FDA sent a request to companies producing cell-cultured meat or seafood to propose a possible designation. A study found that both the terms “cell-grown” and “cell-based” would adequately inform consumers and would neutrally present the product.

The European Parliament rejected an amendment calling for limiting designations such as ‘hamburger’, ‘sausage’, ‘steak’ and ‘escalope’ to traditional meat products only in October last year. The intention was to prohibit their use to refer, for example, to plant-based foods in these forms, such as the veggie burgers already on the market. The fact that plant-based products are coming onto the market in popular and internationally widespread formats such as sausages or hamburgers is, in our view, intended precisely to take advantage of the knowledge that we as consumers have of this type of food. Extending the typology of a product format established in our cultures, such as the hamburger or sausage, should not concern us as much as the environmental impact generated by its production.

There is a need for a clear, science-based regulatory system that supports new food production techniques, allows greater consumer choice, and improves food safety. Food sustainability must be underpinned by innovation, so any unjustified vetoes or language barriers to new products that aim for sustainability and progress in our food should be avoided.

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