American dietary preferences are split across party lines

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POLITICS USUALLY comes first on lists of “what not to discuss at Thanksgiving”. Under President Donald Trump, the subject may be unusually hard to avoid. One strategy might be to focus on talking about food instead. But be warned: ideas on what people should eat are inextricably linked with politics.

One clear example is the ethics of eating meat. Vegetarian and vegan meals abound in upscale American supermarkets. But whereas Democrats may be keen on trying “tofurkey” (provided it is gluten-free), the idea is as repulsive to Republicans as sitting through a marathon of Michael Moore documentaries.

To illustrate just how divided Americans are on their holiday’s signature dish, we asked YouGov, a polling firm, to survey 1,500 adults in the country about their attitudes towards eating meat. Despite the growing abundance of plant-based meat substitutes, only 5% and 2% of Americans identify as vegetarians and vegans, respectively. Much of the demand for quinoa burgers is probably coming from omnivores worried about both their own health and the lives of the animals they eat. Twenty-seven per cent of respondents in our survey say they have made an effort to reduce their consumption of meat in the past year. Here the partisan divide is stark, with 35% of Democrats but only 21% of Republicans trying to cut down.

Blaming it all on politics would be a mistake. Democrats tend to be younger and better-educated. Democrats are also more likely to be women and live in big cities. All of these traits are correlated with greater apprehensiveness about eating animals. Was it really the political ideology of people who preferred Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump that led them to eat less meat, or was it simply that Democrats frequently belong to demographic groups in which vegetarianism is more common?

Isolating the impact of partisanship on a person’s taste for turkey is difficult, since political-party affiliation is strongly correlated with many demographic variables. We have tried to separate out its effect using a logistic regression model, which estimates the probability that a survey respondent will say they have tried to reduce their meat consumption based on their age, education, sex, ethnicity, household income, whether they live in a city or a rural area, whether they own any pets, how often they go to church and their political-party preference. Our study found that even after introducing all of these controls, Democrats are still about 1.8 times as likely as Republicans to say they want to reduce their meat consumption. The safest course of action may be to just sit and eat in silence.

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