Stepping in other people’s shoes: those annoying gluten-free people

Those who follow my work a bit may now that I attach great importance to the ability to step outside of our own experience. This means that we’re trying to take the position of the people we want to reach. We’re trying to see how they view us, how they hear our message. To read more on this, see You are not your audience.

It’s not easy to put yourself in other people’s shoes and imagine what it’s like to be them, listening to us. What can help are thought experiments or situations in which someone else is to us what we are to non-vegans. I already wrote about the imaginary superlocavore vegans, who, because they go further than us “common” vegans, may engender in us some of the feelings of guilt, inferiority or accusation that we may cause among non-vegans. Here is a more realistic example of a situation that taught me something about how non-vegans may experience us and our eating habits.

Not so long ago, I had people over for dinner who had announced that they were allergic to gluten. I discovered some feelings and thoughts within myself which I thought might be quite similar to the feelings and thoughts that non-vegans have about me – particularly when they’d have me over for dinner.

Glutenfree cartoon

I discovered I didn’t quite know what the gluten-intolerant eat and don’t eat.
In spite of being confronted with the word and concept gluten-free like all the time, on product packaging, in restaurants etc, I did not have sufficient knowledge on the topic to confidently make a glutenproof meal for my guests. I had to look stuff up. I found I was confused by the whole thing and when I googled it, I found terms like gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance, gluten allergy, celiac disease etc. Gluten, it turned out, is not just wheat, but also grains like spelt, barley and rye. And what about oats, which are technically ok, but which often get contaminated with gluten. Was this contamination an issue too for my guests, or what?
We often raise eyebrows or even poke fun at non-vegans being slow on the uptake and think: “if it comes from an animal, I don’t eat it: is it that difficult to understand?” But maybe it isn’t that easy after all. A gluten intolerant person may wonder just as well: “How many more times do I need to explain this simple concept?” In both the domains of gluten free and animal free, there are different terms, different degrees of strictness, different motivations… It is maybe not as easy to understand as we think it is…

I was questioning my guests’ intentions
I don’t like it when people seem to think I’m requesting a vegan meal for some trivial reason. Sometimes you can almost see non-vegans think that you’re doing it for the attention, to be special, to be part of the hype. It’s not fun. But I discovered I was doing a bit of the same thing with my guests. Why did they request to eat gluten free? Did they actually have a medical condition? If so, which one? Were they actually harmed by gluten, or was it maybe not all that bad? Or were they perhaps – god forbid – just following a trend?
I know, I shouldn’t do this. I should just honor their request. But this was the first time this happened to me, and moreover, I am not in the US, where every single dietary request is treated with the utmost respect. That kind of thing still has to blow over to most European countries. So forgive me for being a rube here.

I was nervous about my cooking
I quickly went over the staple dishes that I cook for guests, and they all had gluten. I’d have to make something else. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but it was, at least, mildly annoying, and it made me slightly nervous. I couldn’t count on the sure-fire success of my usual concoctions. Somewhere a bit deeper in my mind, I was putting the blame for this, and for the risk of this night not being a culinary success, on them. I was even considering making something separate for them and me (and my girlfriend) so that at least we would have something I knew was going to be good.

These are some of the less and more rational, less and more selfish thoughts that went through my head. You may think: but the gluten free thing is so totally different from the vegan thing! In the vegan case, we have those great moral motivations, that very important ethos that people have to take seriously, right? Shouldn’t we just be crystal clear about our intentions, about the non-triviality of our motivations? Shouldn’t we just be unequivocal in our communication and uberconsistent in our behavior? Then it will all be clear, right? And once it’s clear our requests will always be honored, without question.

Well… I’m not entirely sure. It seems that for many or most non-vegans, it’s very hard to entirely grasp how important exactly those moral motivations are for us. For many, health concerns are easier to take seriously. Think about how the surest way not to get any dairy in your restaurant dish is by announcing you’re lactose intolerant (sure, that has to do with a restaurant’s liability too). But even in those cases, many of us – like bad bad me – may not automatically take people’s dietary requests entirely seriously, and may second guess their guests or customers. And as far as being consistent goes, I can tell you that if my guests would have said “oh, a little bit of gluten here or there doesn’t matter, don’t worry about it,” I would have been appreciative for the break they’d give me, rather than confused.

The point of all of this, again, is to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes. That may increase our understanding of them. And understanding where other people come from will almost always improve our appreciation of and our communication with them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four degrees of separation: how to sell a vegan restaurant dish

Imagine a certain vegan dish in a restaurant. Let’s say it’s a dish called “Moroccan couscous”. Which of the following situations do you prefer?

When I asked what you prefer, the answer you give will of course depend on the criterion you use to assess these situations. Are you thinking about your own convenience? In that case you may prefer option one: in vegan restaurants, there is no hassle, there are no queries, no risks, no uncertainties. If you can’t have a vegan restaurant, you may prefer your vegan dishes to be clearly and neatly separated from the other ones. A physically separate vegan menu may give you the feeling that you’re really being looked after here.
But of course, our own convenience isn’t the most important aspect here – at least it isn’t for me. Much more important is: how many people will order this vegan dish?

If we look at this criterion, then we may have to conclude that the vegan restaurant may not necessarily be the best option. There are, presumably, many people who never set foot in an exclusively vegan place. At least they may not do so voluntarily (they may be dragged along by the vegan in the company). So a vegan offering inside an omnivore place may – at this point in time – be able to confront more non-vegans with the vegan idea and option than a vegan restaurant can. (This is not to say that vegan restaurants don’t have any advantages – see Vegan Islands vs. Infiltrators.)

But also within the context of an an omnivore restaurant, we have different ways of separating the vegan from the non-vegan. To what degree should we separate and identify vegan dishes?

A separate vegan menu (option 2), like I said, gives us a nice feeling, but I’m not sure if it’s very productive. The many restaurants in billionaire Steve Wynn’s Las Vegas hotels all have separate vegan menus, but as a customer, you have to know that. The waiters don’t offer this information spontaneously, so there is little chance that a non-vegan will order a vegan dish there.

The next degree of separation is a separate vegan section on the (same) menu (option 3). Is this an interesting option? Here’s where a new study, done at the London School of Economics comes in. Behavioral science researcher Linda Bacon (I know) investigated if plant-based dishes were ordered more or less frequently when they were listed separately on a menu. The result was that in the case of a separate vegetarian section, the likelihood that these dishes were ordered dropped by a staggering 56%! (I’m assuming that the difference would be bigger still if the section carried the name “vegan dishes”).

One of the possible explanations is that a separate section may reinforce the idea among omnivores that vegetarian or vegan dishes are not for them. Imagine how you look at a section that says “gluten free” or “suitable for the lactose intolerant”. If you don’t belong in the category of people that prefers these foods or needs to eat this way, you may think that these dishes are not for you and, what’s more, lacking in something. Even worse than “vegan dishes” would obviously be a section titled “for vegans” or “for our vegan friends”. Even though this wording is rare (I have come across it) this is how most people think about vegan dishes: as dishes for vegans. In newspaper articles and reviews, vegan products, vegan fairs, vegan restaurants… are very commonly described as stuff for vegans. As vegans ourselves, we should be careful not to confirm this idea, and not automatically presume that whoever uses a vegan product, whoever is present at a vegan fair or a vegan talk… is a vegan. We are only confirming the separation between vegans and non-vegans that way.

So, at least if we’re just looking at sales figures, it seems, for now, that we shouldn’t separate vegan dishes on the menu. The next degree of separation is about incorporating the dish in the menu (option 4) while clearly labeling it. Here, of course, much will depend on the exact label we use. There are different possibilities: vegan, plant-based, vegetarian, meat-free… Alain Coumont, founder of the world famous chain Le Pain Quotidien, prefers the term “botanical”. Also, different degrees of subtlety can be used. The label can be in small or big letters, bold or not, or we could put an asterisk (*) after the menu item and explain at the bottom of the page that these are vegetarian (vegan/plant-based…) dishes. I think we should not worry about the (in)convenience for vegans here. A vegan is used to scanning menus and looking out for these things. What matters, again, is how many people order the dish.

Finally, we can avoid separating vegan from non-vegan at all (option 5). This means not communicating at all that a dish is vegan. I’m guessing that this would maximize the amount of vegan orders. But there are some downsides to this. First of all, much less than the previous options, this is not convenient for vegans at all. More importantly, if vegans don’t patronize a restaurant because at first sight it doesn’t have any vegan options on the menu, we will not be able to help boost the restaurant’s sales of the vegan dishes, and thus their commitment to offering them. In addition to that, many people may order these vegan dishes, but one could argue that if they don’t know a dish was vegan at all, it may be a missed opportunity (see also The Rise of the Stealth Vegan Restaurants).

Obviously, apart from the degree of separation and the labels we choose, there are many other factors that can influence customers’ choices. Apart from pricing, there is, for instance, the name of the dish. We can call a dish “Moroccan couscous with market fresh vegetables, toasted spices and fresh mint”, and make it sound so tasty that anyone might choose it.

As with many things, which choice is the best one is a matter of time. We can do more research and see what people want to order and eat. But if they don’t want to order vegan, that doesn’t just mean we should be careful with the label vegan (and separating the vegan from the non-vegan). It also means that we need to work more on the popularity and image of the term (assuming a term like vegan is a useful thing to have).

Ideally, vegan becomes an extremely positive term and thus a label that increases sales. We are not there yet, but we need to work towards this. The vegan movement can help with this too, in different ways. First of all, we should not see it as a negative thing when “vegan” becomes a trend, as seems to be happening in more and more places. We should appreciate any reason why people choose vegan, even if those reasons may seem superficial to us. I think it’s not a good idea either if we go around saying how all of this has nothing to do with veganism (because veganism is about ethics, etc. – see “Don’t you dare call yourself a vegan“). Every time someone orders a (good) vegan dish, for whatever reason, things happen. Restaurants notice the interest. And people have a good taste experience and their hearts and minds open up a little bit more to all our moral arguments.

Thoughts on taste: eating the Impossible Burger

Recently, during a visit to New York for the Reducetarian Summit, I had the opportunity to eat my very first Impossible Burger…

Impossible Foods, as you may know, is a company started by world renowned Stanford professor Patrick Brown, who, with his extensive knowledge of chemistry, set out to create the ultimate plant-based burger. Impossible Foods has raised 180 million dollars in venture capital to do this. Today, the burger is available in select locations in the US, and has received lots of media attention. It’s become something of a hype.

I had my Impossible Burger at Bareburger, a burger place near New York University (end of May 2017). While this restaurant was modest and low key, the burger is also available in more upscale establishments. My burger came with lettuce, onions, dill pickles, and a “special sauce”. Cheese and bun by default were not vegan, but I had those substituted. I had the burger with French fries and a glass of “American white”, as it was listed on the menu. The burger cost $13.95 or about $18 including tax and tip – definitely not cheap for this kind of food, even if it’s New York City.

This picture will not win any food photography contests, but it’s meant to show the meat-like texture of the Impossible Burger.

 
As you can see on the picture, the burger looks like and has the texture of very juicy minced meat. I would have preferred the product to have been cooked a little more: it almost seemed raw (looking a bit bloody indeed). I don’t know if this is according to Impossible Foods’ idea and instructions, or if this is the way Bareburger likes to make it (or even if it was just due to the chef, or completely accidental). In any case, if you’d do this with meat, you’d risk not killing the bacteria in it.
Most importantly: the taste. I quite liked it, but I detected some flavor or aftertaste that I’m less fond of. It’s hard to describe, but I would call it an “animal” or “earthy” flavor. I’d need to have the burger again to be sure that I wasn’t making this up, or that this flavor didn’t originate from something other than the burger.

So how does it stand up compared to other vegan burgers? And is this product really such a breakthrough? It’s hard to answer these questions as someone who hasn’t eaten meat in over twenty years. The Impossible Burger is made to convince meat eaters. Vegans are not the primary intended audience, and indeed, only the vegans who could theoretically still appreciate the texture and taste of meat (the ones who don’t shy away from convincing imitations) need apply. To me this burger certainly seemed the closest imitation to meat – both in terms of taste and texture – that I can recall. However, I have tasted many other vegan burgers that I enjoyed at least as much – but again, I’m not the target audience.

I also realized that by the time I sat down to have my first bite, I was already heavily biased. This burger is kind of the hottest thing under the sun in Vegan-country right now. And I was having it in the coolest place on earth: New York City. I was going to have an experience that hardly any one of my vegan friends back home had had. It would be very hard not to like it.

All this made me think of the role that basically irrelevant non-taste factors can play in a taste experience.

When companies spend a lot of money on advertising, they are not just making sure the public knows about their products existence. The advertisements also serve – very obviously – to create a certain positive image for whatever the company is selling (including their brand). This image can be built around all kinds of values, like coolness, innovation, exoticness, strength, safety, happiness, etc. When people associate positive values (i.e., values they cherish) with the product in question, this will not just incite them to buy the product: in the case of food products, these value associations can also influence what they feel the product actually tastes like.

To see more clearly how taste experience can be influenced by non-taste factors and how this relates to plant-based foods, let’s briefly look at one study. A 2008 paper titled The Interactive Effect of Cultural Symbols and Human Values on Taste Evaluation concludes that what influenced study participants in how they rated the taste of foods, was what they thought they had eaten rather than what they actually ate.
The setup was as follows: study participants were given either a beef sausage roll or a veggie roll. Some of those who got the veggie roll were told they got a beef roll, and some of those who got the beef roll were told they got a veggie roll. Researchers asked participants to fill out a questionnaire about how they rated the product they ate, but which also contained questions about values. What the researchers found was that especially the people who endorsed the values traditionally represented by meat (power, strength, virility…), would rate the meat item as better in taste… even when they thought they were eating meat but were actually eating a vegetarian product. Conversely, people who ate the vegetarian product but thought they were eating beef, would not rate the taste of the vegetarian product less than those who ate beef. “What influenced taste evaluation was what they thought they had eaten and whether that food symbolized values that they personally supported.”

The implication of this, of course, is that apart from getting the taste (and also texture, aroma, etc.) right, we also need to make sure that people associate plant-based products with values and ideas that they cherish. We need, in other words, to build a good image for meat alternatives. (Alternatively, we can try to change what values people find important, which is probably a slower way, but which, of course, can be necessary in some cases – cherishing values like virility or power is not necessarily beneficial for individuals and society).

Even though we associate the words and concepts vegetarian and vegan with values like compassion, care, sustainability, etc, they are, in the minds of many other people, also associated with negative values and ideas. Vegans themselves can, of course, contribute to changing the ideas and values associated with veganism and vegan foods. But like it or not, commercial advertising, marketing, branding… can also help do that. They can help change the associations people have with animal product alternatives, and get them to consume more of them. The Impossible Burger, while impressive in taste and texture, is helping to create a better, trendier, more innovative image for plant-based foods.