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Humans Are Hooked on Meat. But Do We Really Need It?

The truth could be more complicated.

In this modern age of information, the inundation of often-conflicting health research can make sorting fact from fiction a mind-boggling task. Yet one thing is certain: humans from cultures across the globe generally love meat. In Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat, Marta Zaraska sets out to explore this global phenomenon and “identify all the hooks that make meat a food that humans don't want to easily give up.”

The answer to why so many people are “addicted” to meat is complex. Zaraska believes that our craving for meat is rooted in evolutionary history, culture, taste, biological and genetic factors, and the unyielding power of the meat industry. When human ancestors transitioned from herbivores to omnivores, “it enabled us to grow bigger brains, encouraged sharing and politics, and helped us move out of Africa and into colder climates,” Zaraska explains. But today, meat is no longer the rare treat that we’ve hunted ourselves. In fact, the demand for animal protein is exploding across the globe. Zaraska writes, "According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 2011 we ate an average of sixty-one pounds more of meat than we did in 1951—that's about 122 average eight-ounce steaks a year more, despite all the accumulating warnings about cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.” What is contributing to this significant rise in meat consumption? The meat industry is one major factor. “In 2011, in the US alone, the annual sales of meat were worth $186 billion,” Zaraska states. And money speaks. “During the 2013 election cycle, the animal products industry contributed $17.5 million to federal candidates.”

Through her quest to understand the human obsession with meat, Zaraska comes to dispel many of the claims that animal protein is somehow necessary to be healthy or to survive. Zaraska points out that all carnivores have carnassial teeth at the back of their jaws, "blade-like and sharp and perfect for slicing meat." Yet, not only do humans lack these teeth, the human dental configuration resembles that of other vegetarian animals like gorillas. Zaraska also lays out research that indicates that all high quality amino-acid proteins required by humans can be found in plants. Vitamin B-12, which is found in meat, dairy and eggs, is the only exception. Vegetarians still obtain enough B-12 through dairy and eggs, but a B-12 supplement is recommended for anyone following a vegan diet.

The negative health effects of a diet rich in animal protein are backed by modern science. Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a review of the evidence, concluding that all processed meats (ie: bacon, sausages, hotdogs) are carcinogenic, categorizing them on the same level as tobacco smoke and asbestos. They also added that red meats including beef, pork, veal and lamb are "probably carcinogenic" to people.

The global impact of excessive meat consumption is also a matter of scientific concern. The livestock sector produces about 15% of global greenhouse gases, roughly equivalent to all the exhaust emissions of every car, train, ship and aircraft on the planet. A recent VICE episode on HBO titled “Meathooked and End of Water” delves further into the environmental crisis brought upon by the growing demand for meat. A description of the episode explains that “it takes over 1800 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat and the global demand for meat is exploding. On top of that, water is becoming a scare commodity everywhere throughout the world. As the demand for cheap meat increases, the demand for water rises as well. As this crisis goes global, the question isn’t whether or not the amount of water we use is sustainable, it becomes about whether or not it’s recoverable.”

While Zaraska set out to discover why humans are hooked on meat, her experiences and research lend themselves to the case for a vegetarian diet. Yet with so many people “addicted” to meat, Zaraska understands that giving up animal protein won’t happen overnight. “Even though I do believe that in the future humanity will eat mostly plant-based foods, I also believe that pushing for dietary purity is not the way to go,” she writes. “We should become aware of meat’s many meanings – only then can the hooks be released one by one”.

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