Whilst vegetarians dislike animal cruelty, and often express disgust for liquid milk, they routinely consume cheese which is, of course, milk in its solid form.
Stirling researchers found that vegetarians who participated in the study acknowledged that producing NMAPs can be harmful to animals, but that they found it easier to forgo milk whilst still enjoying cheese.
The presence of cognitive dissonance - the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs do not align with actions - was strongly supported by the data.
This was aptly demonstrated when comparing attitudes to milk and cheese. Vegetarians felt more ethical conflict about consuming milk than cheese, despite them coming from the same source.
Our research has uncovered some of the specific personal and social barriers which must be addressed before people feel able or willing to take the next step in adopting a fully plant-based diet.
Co-author Dr Carol Jasper, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Stirling, said: “This is the first paper to examine why vegetarians still consume non-meat animal products.
“We discovered that, whilst vegetarians dislike animal cruelty, and often express disgust for liquid milk, they routinely consume cheese which is, of course, milk in its solid form.
“We found a conflict between people’s consumption of non-meat animal products, such as eggs and dairy, despite knowing the harmful consequences they entail.
“One way in which this cheese paradox could be explained is the process of dissociation, whereby the further a product is removed from its animal origin, the more willingly people consume it.
“Fluid milk triggers empathy as it looks almost identical to when it was taken from the cow, compared to cheese which has undergone various stages of industrial processing, changing shape, colour, taste and texture in the process.”
Psychology tutor, and co-author, Devon Docherty added: “Our research has uncovered some of the specific personal and social barriers which must be addressed before people feel able or willing to take the next step in adopting a fully plant-based diet.
“Industry, particularly plant-based food manufacturers, can benefit from our research by understanding the needs and wants of people who are still consuming NMAPs, which will greatly aid in the design, uptake, and impact of their products.”
The researchers conducted a series of in-depth interviews with 12 participants. Qualitative research often has smaller sample sizes because of the depth of data to be analysed.
Dr Jasper added: “This is an exploratory study intended to be food for thought and not representative of the entire vegetarian population. We welcome the exploration of our ideas in future studies.”
The study, The cheese paradox: How do vegetarians justify consuming non-meat animal products?, was published in Appetite, an international research journal specialising in cultural, social, psychological, sensory, and physiological influences on the selection and intake of foods and drinks.