Talking offal: The psychology behind avoiding haggis for dinner

An ongoing ESRC seminar series, involving practitioner and academic experts, is focusing on consumer perceptions of food safety, nutrition and waste. The aim is to understand and improve UK consumers’ decisions about nutrition, food safety, and domestic food waste.

Nicky Bown

Dr Nicky Bown

Nick Piper

Dr Nick Piper

Ahead of Burns night – a celebration of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, where Scots celebrate all things great within their country, including the tradition of eating haggis – Dr Nicola Bown, senior lecturer in organisational psychology and Dr Nick Piper, postdoctoral researcher, Centre for Decision Research, University of Leeds, look at why some people may avoid eating the offal-based meal.

Sheep stomach stuffed with a boiled mix of liver, heart, lungs (collectively ‘pluck’), rolled oats and other ingredients such as onions, suet, herbs and spices – for the unfamiliar, this is the common recipe for a traditional Scottish haggis.

With Burn’s night approaching, the faces of colleagues at the mention of haggis suggest that there are a good many people who would shun the humble haggis at dinner time.

A straw poll also suggests that this is not a matter of taste preferences, as most of our limited sample had never actually tasted haggis. But why?

It boils down to (see what I did there?) the complex psychological and sociological decisions we make about everything that we eat.

Psychologically the aversion to haggis is a barrier based on disgust, an emotional response of revulsion to something that is considered unpleasant. Professor Paul Rozin and colleagues suggest that core (profound) disgust is associated with three criteria – something that is edible, something that has, or had a life of its own, and something that could contaminate other things. Haggis, arguably, meets all of these criteria.

According to Ben Reade, Head of Culinary Research and Development at the Nordic Food Lab, haggis is a ‘trust dish’, one in which the ingredients may vary considerably from haggis to haggis. The fact that it may contain unknown ingredients may put some people off, but paradoxically the modern food system contains many popular and widely eaten products composed of ingredients that are either unfamiliar or unknown to their consumers. Just the kind of processed foods that nutritionists discourage us from eating too regularly, but that many find irresistible.

Considering food safety, it is possible that an aversion to organ matter is founded on a legitimate reluctance to eat parts of the animal involved in processing toxins or where food borne pathogens may be concentrated. These risks, of course, are mitigated by cooking offal products properly, but some reticence may remain.

For those who enjoy eating haggis, however, they can refer to the fact that it makes use of the entire animal so is certainly less wasteful.

If we were to collectively move to a more organ-rich diet, this could prove a huge shift in consumption resulting in a reduction of the environmental burden of livestock farming.

However to achieve these efficiency gains, a substantial behavioural change is needed – we would have to start eating offal in place of other meat, something that would require significant adjustments to our attitudes and taste preferences.

It is also generally accepted that a more sustainable food system will be achieved by reducing overall meat consumption, and finding other alternative food sources.

From a human nutrition point of view the consumption of offal, like many foods, may have both positive and negative consequences.

On the positive front:

  • Liver, a key component of haggis, is rich in nutrients and vitamins essential for human health.

On the downside:

  • Some haggis will comprise a high saturated fat content.

Widely speaking, human decisions around food are psychologically and sociologically complex, and are often determined by available resources (time, money and skills). Understanding consumers’ behaviour and developing effective communications and interventions require diverse approaches to research.

This is why our seminar series is particularly timely because it allows experts from a number of distinct domains to come together to better understand and inform the complex decisions consumers face about nutrition, food safety, and food waste, whilst exploring the potential trade-offs that consumers may perceive between the need to reduce food waste whilst eating healthily and maintaining food safety.

For further information, on the seminar series, visit the Food Options, Opinions and Decisions (FOOD) website.

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