A shocking number of meat-eaters feel disgusted by animal products, according to a new study that tested people’s responses to common meat dishes. The University of Exeter commissioned the study to dive into people’s dietary preferences, surveying more than 700 people including omnivores, flexitarians, and vegetarians to find out what each dietary preference meant for the individual’s relationship with meat and other animal products.

“We were surprised to find that so many people are grossed out by meat – even people who eat meat all the time,” Elise Becker of the University of Exeter said. “Our results don’t explain why these people eat meat, but it’s possible that habits family, and cultural traditions play a part.”

The study found that seven percent of meat-eaters exhibited a “fairly strong disgust response” to common meat dishes in the UK. The test showed participants photos of common meats like roast chicken and bacon and gauged the disgust level and individual response to the images. Even further into the study, the Univesity found that omnivores as a group rated meat images twice as disgusting on average as pictures of other plant-based snacks and foods, especially carb-rich foods.

The researchers go on to explain that the easiest way to quit meat would be to work with the “yuck factor” that its participants displayed. The habitual and traditional nature of meat-eating is extremely difficult to break, but the researchers believe it’s necessary to rethink the approach when introducing plant-based diets. For anyone who wishes to cut meat from their diets, disgust will work as a better motivator than individual decisions.

“Meat consumption is increasingly seen as unsustainable, unhealthy, and unethical, and many people want to eat less,” Becker continued. “If you’re trying to cut down your meat intake, sheer willpower may not be enough – but harnessing the ‘yuck factor' could be the way to go.”

The participants split into three groups: 402 omnivores, 203 flexitarians, and 106 vegetarians. The researchers had all 711 participants complete a rapid test and react to a rapid-response task that measured their levels of disgust to meat and animal products. The flexitarians mark the only group that actively was attempting to cut down on their meat intake, and during the survey, meat disgust was discovered to be a better predictor than personal discipline in reducing meat consumption. The disgust factor proved to be the most effective motivator when cutting animal products from their diet.

“We hope that this information can help us develop new interventions to help people reduce their meat intake,” Professor Natalia Lawrence said. “Not everyone wants to reduce their meat consumption – but for those who do, we are working on computer tasks that might help them harness the power of disgust in a fun way. It’s important to note that our study does not establish causation – so further research is needed to find out whether meat disgust causes people to eat less meat, or whether avoiding meat allows these negative emotional responses to develop or be expressed.”

The study looks to start the conversation about methods to disrupt traditional eating. When people and consumers grow up eating meat-centric diets, it becomes difficult to relearn eating and cooking, but The University of Exeter team wants to understand meat disgust and how to manipulate it to help people who want to ditch meat motivate themselves.

“It’s interesting to note that almost all of us experience meat disgust from time to time – for example when we see unfamiliar meats or dishes made from parts of animals we don’t usually eat, like squirrel meat of beef heart,” Becker said.

The researchers plan to expand on their findings to test human meat disgust in hope that it can help cut meat from people palettes. The shocking findings show that many people, even those who do not actively intend to cut meat, find it off-putting to some capacity, and Becker and her team plan to dive deeper into this ‘yuck factor’ to help people redesign their own eating habits.

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