Ethical eating

Pho Nom owner-chef Jerry Mai believes in ethically sourced food and uses it exclusively in her two restaurants. Photo: Simon Schluter

Does freerange pork actually taste better or could it be all in your mind? Find out in this story I wrote for the Saturday Age.

September 26, 2015

Peter Barrett

Despite best intentions to try something new for lunch I often find myself back at the same place ordering the same thing: a steaming hot bowl of chicken pho from Melbourne Emporium’s basement restaurant, Pho Nom. It’s affordable ($11.90), nutritious and I can pay by eftpos. But a recent study shows there may be something else influencing my behaviour: moral satisfaction.

Published recently in the journal Appetite and entitled “Savouring morality. Moral satisfaction renders food of ethical origin subjectively tastier,” the study tested the premise by giving participants the same foods with altered descriptions, indicating either ethical or conventional sourcing. People whose values were aligned to farming practices such as fair trade, organic and free range reported an enhanced taste, even though the food was no different.

“The objective taste of ethical food may well be superior – we don’t know that,” says lead author Dr Boyka Bratanova from Scotland’s Dundee Business School. “What we show is that there exists a psychological mechanism that adds to the enjoyment of ethical food. And whether people experience this additional enjoyment depends on their values.”

Illustration: Matt Golding
Illustration: Matt Golding

Rather than being ‘tricked’, ethical consumers are rewarded with enhanced food enjoyment, and the source of that reward is their own morality, says Bratanova.

“It’s a win-win situation where both consumers and our planet and society benefit. It comes down to regulators to make sure ethical labeling is truthful.”

Back at Pho Nom owner-chef Jerry Mai uses only ethically sourced, local ingredients. The beef is grass-fed Warialda, the pork is free range from Greenvale Farm and the chicken is Milawa Free Range Poultry. No wonder I keep going back.

Although it’s more expensive, Mai chooses to take a hit on her margins so prices stay affordable.

“I’m not going to be a millionaire overnight but […] I’m hoping that if we create a high enough demand for it farmers will have more work and the prices will start coming into line.” But when presented with evidence that her ethically biased mind might be playing tricks on her tastebuds Mai is adamant she can still taste a difference. “It sounds really weird but a chicken tastes more like chicken, a steak tastes more like beef, a fruit tastes more like fruit.”

Milawa Free Range Poultry farmer Russell Mickle says ethical farming is on the verge of becoming mainstream. His paddock-grazing chickens cost about twice as much as conventional chooks but there is a waiting list for the 800-1000 birds he produces each week. He estimates that of the 20 million chickens consumed in Australia each week about 10 per cent are free range (the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association estimates that figure is closer to 20 per cent).

Mickle’s decision to start free-range poultry farming 16 years ago wasn’t based on any particularly high or altruistic ideals. “It was a big, tough journey,” he says. “But we did it because we wanted to make a different product. That’s the only reason. We wanted to have a really, really nice tasting bird.”

But even if your preference for ethically sourced food is all in your mind that’s nothing to be ashamed of, says Professor Russell Keast, head of Deakin University’s Centre for Advanced Sensory Science.

“The fact that your mind is placing higher value on the product and then it makes you enjoy it more? That’s fantastic. I think people who have those values are doing a great job and the fact that they believe it is tasting better – that’s just an added bonus.”

Read the story online at Fairfax Media here.