(I wrote this for the Investigating Contemporary Science module, as part of my UCL studies)
When I told my 80-year-old Grandma that I had become vegetarian, her immediate troubled response was: “But what about your protein intake?” I assured her that my health would be perfectly fine, yet from this brief encounter, neither of us had realised just how many social issues we had touched upon. This is because such issues are not exactly those we would regularly contemplate, or even realise. However, they influence almost every aspect of the inseparable, though often fraught, relationship between science and society. We may call them, the Politics of Protein.
So, what are the issues relating to the Politics of Protein exactly? I will admit that such a question is impossible to answer in the space of this article, but in summary, they demonstrate the influence of protein outside of the laboratory. If you’re wondering exactly how something, that really is just a type of molecule, can have social implications, then stay with me on this.
It is doubtful that many readers will have never heard of the word ‘protein’ before. Though its origins may lie within the realms of scientific vocabulary, it is a common word used as part of everyday conversations. Most will probably say they have a decent understanding of what the word ‘protein’ entails, too. All living things, including us, are made up of protein and so we need to make sure that we get enough into our diet, right? In short, yes. Protein is essential for growth and repair in the body, and this just one reason behind its longstanding reputation as ‘the sacred nutrient’. In fact, the word ‘protein’ comes from the Greek ‘proteios’, meaning ‘of prime importance’.
Protein’s crucial role for life on earth is not the only influence behind its superiority, however. This is because we readily associate meat as protein and protein as meat. If we refer back to my Grandma’s concern about my protein intake, it seems to stem from her belief that meat is the main source of protein. Such is the divide that has become culturally established between ‘first class’ animal protein, like meat, and ‘second class’ plant protein. Although, it is true that not all sources of proteins are equal. Meat contains much higher levels than nuts and beans, for example, and is a complete protein (i.e. containing all nine amino acids that the body cannot produce itself). However, studies have shown that we do not have to eat complete proteins to stay healthy, in fact, they tell us that eating a variety of plant proteins will keep us in good health.
But, what does the government have to say about protein intake? According to current guidelines, we should be aiming for 45.0g – 55.5g per day. Naturally, policy-makers have turned to scientists for this advice, with the general acceptance that the scientific evidence will be objectively translated into useful information. Such is the reputation that science enjoys. However, the varying protein recommendations over the last few centuries proves that this is not the case; cultural knowledge has most certainly made its mark.
For example, in the nineteenth century German scientist, Carl Voit, found that humans require just 48.5g of protein per day in order to stay healthy. Yet, he recommended a daily intake of 118g – much more than double. Indeed, up until the outbreak of WWII when rationing came into play, experts were still advising 120g. Why were the scientific findings seemingly ignored? Because, meat has historically been a symbol of wealth and success. If you were rich, you would eat a lot of meat. If you were poor, you would rely on staples such as bread and potatoes. In fact, the poor were often mocked for being lazy and inept from consuming little meat.
However, meat also holds another symbol: masculinity. If we look back to history again, men carrying out manual work in labouring families would normally receive the lion’s share of the meat. For women and children, it was considered a luxury. This provides some explanation as to why we tend to gender foods. For example, just as meat a stereotypically ‘male’ food, salads and chocolate are usually seen as ‘female’. Behavioural psychologists from University College London have proven that this is not an innate, biological preference either, but the product of social conditioning.
So, how is this reflected in modern society? If, like me, you are young, female, middle-class and an urbanite, then you are the dominating demographic found within current vegan and vegetarian trends. Some may say I’ve fallen into the trap all too easily. I know that ‘trap’ is certainly the wrong word here, as everyone has their own reasoned influences behind diet choice. Yet, what this does demonstrate is that more women are choosing to avoid animal protein, than men. This is perhaps unsurprising, as a 2011 study of the relationship between meat and masculinity found that vegetarians tend to be rated as weaker and less masculine.
Cutting down on animal protein is not just an issue of gender, however. Overall, UK trends show that veganism has increased by 360% in the last decade. Of course, there are many reasons for this, from animal welfare to environmental concerns. However, the supposed health benefits are thought to be the main drive. This is particularly relevant if we look back to this time last year, when red and processed meats dominated the headlines, after Cancer Research UK classified them as “probably” and “definitely” causing cancer respectively.
Countless studies have been conducted on the relationship between protein and cancer, including The China Study, officially published in 2005. Following this, scientist and author behind the corresponding book, T. Colin Campbell, has called daily protein recommendations in the US, “irresponsible”. Despite current guidelines being set significantly lower than a century ago, he argues the that scientific research still does not justify current levels. Furthermore, he claims there is enough science to conclude that we should consume as little animal protein as possible, in order to prevent heart disease, diabetes and other diseases of wealth.
If such evidence is as clear-cut as Campbell is suggesting, why aren’t governments taking action? This is because such results are heretical. They do not meet with lifestyle and cultural eating habits, which is something that policy finds difficult to intrude upon. This doesn’t mean no one is trying though. The new Mayor of Turin has recently announced plans to become a vegetarian or vegan city once a week, with the aim of improving public health and taking responsibility for the environment. But, it’s fair to say that it hasn’t been greeted too warmly by the locals. With a strong local meat trade in Turin, many argue that the initiative will damage the economy, as well as culinary traditions.
Similarly, across the UK, ‘Meat-free Monday’ is being promoted by many businesses and establishments. University College London was a supporter of this campaign, only selling vegetarian foods in its cafes each Monday. However, a decision has recently been made by the Union Council to scrap it. As is human nature, when something is forcibly imposed, resistance kicks in.
It seems that our relationship with protein, particularly meat, is an unstable one. Should we love it, or should we loathe it? It would appear that protein could be blamed for many social, global and health issues, and that the overall trend is showing more and more of us are doubting the ‘first class’ label of the animal kind. However, whatever the science might say, or even history and gender theories, we humans are a stubborn bunch. The reputation of animal protein is far off being totally damaged; the love affair is not over, yet.
Campbell, T. (2006). ‘The China Study’. Dallas,Tex: BenBella Books. Print.
Magee, A. (2014). ‘The paleo diet: can it really be good for you?’. The Telegraph. [Online]. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-health/10586465/The-paleo-diet-can-it-really-be-good-for-you.html [Accessed: 07/11/16].
Quinn, S. (2016). ‘Number of vegans in Britain rises by 360% in 10 years’. The Telegraph. [Online]. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/news/number-of-vegans-in-britain-rises-by-360-in-10-years/ [Accessed: 01/11/16].
Ruby, M. Heine, S. (2011). ‘Meat, Morals, and Masculinity.’ Appetite. 56(2). pp. 447-450.