In East Asia, one of most frequently produced TV programs is food travel shows. The hit Taiwanese food travel show “Super Taste” (食尚玩家), for instance, has been running since 2007 with more than 1,100 episodes documenting the best foods around the world. Also running weekly since 2007, “Himitsu no Kenmin Show” (カミングアウトバラエティ!! 秘密のケンミンSHOW), is a Japanese program that introduces regional cuisines largely unknown to the rest of the country.

In these shows, celebrity hosts scour their home countries and around the world for top-of-the-line foods, projecting their visual deliciousness to envious viewers through high-definition videos of the dishes just as they come out to the dining table.

Whether it is Taiwan, Japan, or South Korea, these food shows have one thing in common — meat. Among all the beautiful ingredients presented to the audience, red meat remains front and center. The juicy sights of the red-and-white layers of raw beef sizzling on the frying pan and the freshly cut fish fillet glistening on the chopping board dominate the screen. Brand-name meat continues to represent the highest culinary luxury that true gourmands should aspire to in East Asia.


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However, across the Pacific Ocean, the meat-dominated perception of “good food” has been rapidly shifting in the past few years. Media attention garnered by the rise of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, two meat-substitute producers, shows that among a younger generation of Americans, a shift away from meat is no longer just for health, but also for moral issues like environmental protection and animal rights. Eschewing the consumption of meat, then, has become an expression of social progressivism.

In view of the emergence of a meat-free social movement in the United States, the continued worship of good meat in East Asia feels rather odd. Meat consumption is much more culturally ingrained in the U.S. than in Asia as it consistently tops the list of meat consumption per capita. Asia also has a shorter history of meat-eating since meats are relatively expensive and Buddhist teachings oppose the breeding of animals for consumption.

Another reason for the surging popularity of meat in Asian cuisines is meat serves as a symbol of enjoyment and social attainment in Asia. Being able to afford and consume good meat represents a break with restrictive customs and ideologies of the past, simultaneously embracing a more Western lifestyle purchased with greater wealth.


Credit: Reuters / Jason Lee

Meat stalls are seen at a market in Beijing, China, March 25, 2016.

As Asia becomes richer, more secular, and more fluid in terms of cultural allegiance, more people will use meat consumption as a way to show that they are capable of enjoying freedom and cultural cosmopolitanism in a culinary sense and beyond. The great variety of meat, from different animals, under different brands, and cooked in different ways, only reinforces the belief that eating meat is associated with an open and supposedly educated mind that’s accepting of different ideas and values.

The U.S. movement to consume less meat notes that raising livestock en masse is incurring ever-larger environment and moral costs. Asia, with some of the world’s fastest-growing and most populated economies, has an outsized impact on environmental degradation and animal abuse from animal husbandry. Hence, promoting a meat-free culture in Asia is even more important than anywhere else in order to minimize the environmental impact.

But major media outlets and consumers around the world do not do enough to address the social impact of meat consumption. As TV programs show off beautiful cuts of meat, the viewers are easy to neglect the environmental cost and the poorly treated animals. Without making clear the detrimental caveat that comes with eating meat, consumers continue to wrongly perceive that their enjoyment of good meat comes with little costs besides what is stated on the price tags.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

While both Asian and Western media are guilty of encouraging meat consumption, Western media have gone further than their Asian counterparts in questioning it. For instance, the British reality show “Meat the Family” challenges people to go on vegetarian diets, a premise that so far sees no equivalent in East Asian entertainment. Western media have also extensively reported on the linkage between meat consumption and environmental damage, something that mainstream Asian media have yet to catch on.

Although the volume of meat consumption has fallen in Western Europe due to concerns over climate change and personal health, the number continues to rise in Asia, particularly in China. If Asia fails to change the media portrayal of its meat obsession, then the continent is ill-prepared for dietary changes that are essential to creating a sustainable future.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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