Eating is slowly changing

Submitted on Wed, 11/23/2016 - 09:59
Markus Vinnari/ Photo: Jonne Renvall
Postdoctoral Researcher Markus Vinnari trusts that vegetarianism is gradually becoming more common as he determined based on his doctoral dissertation already in 2010. Photograph: Jonne Renvall


There has recently been a lot of debate about the increase of vegetarianism. The most passionate voices have even talked about a revolution. However, Postdoctoral Researcher Markus Vinnari from the School of Management of the University of Tampere in Finland says that we should keep our shirts on. “A change is coming, but it will take some years before major parts of the population make the transition”.

If we are to believe social media, hunting for pulled oats has become the new favourite sport of young urban adults. On Facebook, people share information on where to find the food and post updates on their hunting trips. If they catch their prey, photo proof will quickly follow.

Vinnari compares the recently launched vegetarian products to the first sports model of Tesla, the electric car which had a powerful engine but did not quite meet the public’s expectations.

“In a similar vein, pulled oats have great nutritional value even though the product might be a bit of a compromise in terms of taste and mouthfeel. I believe that these aspects will develop in the next versions. As the number of such products increases, everyone can find a product that suits their particular tastes.”

However, Vinnari says that Finland and the other western countries are far from the point when vegetarianism is easy or becomes the new normal.

“Some people claim that the vegan diet is easy to carry out, but I disagree. Social structures still have to change quite a bit before it actually becomes simple to follow a vegetarian diet everywhere all the time. Eating meat is still the norm.”

But as was said above, a change is coming. According to the sales figures of Kesko, one of the largest food wholesalers in Finland, the consumption of vegetarian milk products and vegetable-based protein products is increasing at the annual rate of thirty percent. Various non-animal food items are being developed globally. For example, a vegetable-based “meat” has been produced in the United States; its mouthfeel cannot be told apart from real meat in blind tests, and it exudes a red fluid that resembles meat juices. In the Netherlands, Mark Post’s research group is developing cell-cultured hamburger meat, an undertaking which is taking steps towards a marketable product.

Vinnari has a ready answer to those who ask why non-animal food must resemble meat.

“When large masses of people choose which foods to buy, familiarity and safety play a big role. Neophobia, the fear of new things, has been scientifically researched and it explains why some of us avoid new foods. This characteristic has been very useful for human beings from the evolutionary perspective, but it also slows down the pace at which we change our diets.”

Because ground beef is more familiar to us than e.g. lentils, the new products sell better if they resemble beef. In the future, we will see what names the new vegetarian “meats” will be called.

“For example, it has been suggested that Mark Post’s cell-cultured meat should be called clean meat because it does not contain antibiotics or other similar substances that are harmful to people.”

However, for many it might be hard to perceive that laboratory-grown food is clean because in the current food talk “clean” usually means something that is as unprocessed as possible.

Vinnari points out that not just eating habits but also the products we consume change.

“The carrots we see in the shops these days do not really resemble the vegetable the carrot was to begin with. However, few would not call this vegetable a carrot. It will be interesting to see what we will mean when we talk about meat in fifty years’ time.”

Even though vegetarianism and meat eating have been contrasted in the media, Vinnari says that he is surprised that the predictions for the increase of vegetarianism have not given rise to a larger opposition.

“I have been expecting a backlash from the meat industry in Finland. Perhaps the change is too new and the industry has not woken up to the fact of what is really happening.”

According to Vinnari, the focus of food policy has traditionally been at the start of the food chain and organised in the interests of the producers, but this is also changing. The forces behind the scenes are so powerful that Vinnari says that a change of focus is inevitable.

“A new kind of environmental awareness can already be seen in energy production and traffic solutions, and it will not be long before we can see the same in the way we eat and what we eat. National health policies have also awakened to the fact that the traditional food policy is not conducive to well-being. That is why at some point we just have to accept that food policies can no longer be based on the conditions set by an ever decreasing number of reactionary farmers at the same time as we have to consider the well-being of the rest of the population, the environment and animals.”

Some of the large food companies are already grasping the new situation. For example, Saarioinen and Kotipizza in Finland have started to offer vegan versions of their products. Elsewhere in the world, the Coca-Cola Company is buying shares in soy milk companies, and it has recently been reported that large international investors have recommended that the large food production companies start using vegetable proteins in their products.

And these are just western examples.

On the global scale, vegetarian food is the basic diet for over a billion people. It is presently estimated that vegetarianism is growing fastest in China and Australia. If the Chinese take this question seriously, the effects will certainly be seen elsewhere, too.

In the Nordic countries, we may lag behind, but we are getting there.

“My guess is that the kettles are boiling in Finnish test kitchens.”

Those kettles are probably full of the next generation vegan Teslas.

Did you know?

According to official nutrition recommendations in Finland, we should eat about a half a kilo of meat per week. That equals 26 kilos annually.

In 2014, Finns ate 76,6 kilos of bone-in meat per person.

In 1960, the annual meat consumption per person was 32 kilos.
Text: Hanna Hyvärinen