The Evolution of Checkoff-funded Beef Flavor Research

by Dani Shubert, Associate Director, Meat Science, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff

Summary

Taste is the number one palatability attribute that consumers use when deciding what entrée they would like to have for dinner. Taste, or flavor, is a top driver of eating satisfaction, and often the top reason consumers choose to eat beef. Beef flavor has been a part of checkoff-funded beef quality research for some time, but understanding this quality trait has more recently been made a high-level research priority. Increasing the industry’s knowledge of beef flavor will ultimately impact decisions within the industry pertaining to cattle production systems, processing techniques and even consumer targeted programs. Improvements in beef flavor or taste ultimately will create an improvement in overall consumer demand. A full understanding of the topic is needed before these improvements can take effect, and The Beef Checkoff is making great strides toward this goal.

Background

Eating satisfaction of beef is dependent on three attributes: tenderness, flavor and juiciness. Historically, tenderness has been the palatability trait focused on most extensively, and researchers have explored tirelessly the mechanisms that affect tenderness in order to improve tenderness and the beef eating experience for consumers. The checkoff-funded National Beef Tenderness Survey has tracked consistent improvements in tenderness over time, and the most recent survey (2010/2011) revealed that most of the steaks in retail and foodservice outlets were considered tender. Although tenderness will always be a needed area of focus for future beef quality research, researchers have begun to look into areas of palatability that are not as clearly understood. With direction of the Beef Industry Long Range Plan, checkoff committees and beef industry advisors, the checkoff and its research partners in the Product Quality Research program began a research strategy focused on flavor of beef products. The goal of this initiative is to study beef flavor to the point that it is understood as well as tenderness. Much work has been done to reach the current point of beef flavor understanding, and new questions about beef flavor surface with each new research project. 

Discussion

The beef industry took the first big step in addressing beef flavor by funding the development of the beef flavor lexicon which identified major and minor beef flavor contributing components. A flavor lexicon provides a word bank to describe the flavor of a product or a category of products. Sensory evaluation, in combination with chemical identification of flavor components, has long been a powerful tool used to evaluate the quality of beef. However, prior to the creation of this checkoff-funded beef flavor lexicon, sensory studies often focused only on negative flavor attributes and differed in methodology to the point that results from different research studies could not be compared. The beef lexicon is now being used during descriptive sensory analysis to increase consistency and allow results to be compared between different research studies.

During the creation of the beef flavor lexicon, it became obvious that the industry knew very little about the multifaceted nature of beef flavor. It also became apparent that much more research would be needed in order to evolve the industry’s understanding of beef flavor to the point that beef flavor could be positively and consistently influenced to improve a consumer’s eating experience, as the industry has done with years of tenderness research knowledge. 

Beef flavor is perceived by the senses in response to flavor compounds, often aromatic compounds called volatile compounds, which develop during the cooking process and stimulate taste and smell receptors in the mouth and nose. Flavor development of beef is a complicated equation involving precursor compounds (proteins, lipids and sugars present in raw beef), cooking method and degree of doneness. Research studies combining the evaluation of precursor compounds, various cooking methods, sensory analysis and volatile compound measurement have been conducted to help the industry identify what flavor compounds (positive and negative) will be formed through different precursor compound reaction pathways. 

After identification of key flavor attributes and understanding the processes in which they are produced, the question that remains is, “which beef flavor attributes are positive and which attributes are negative for beef consumers?” While consumer perceptions are variable, it is important to understand the effect of specific beef flavor attributes on consumer attitudes so that consumers themselves can be used to guide the industry toward product improvements. Understanding how consumers react to different flavor compounds created from various muscle types, cooking methods, degree of doneness, etc. will further guide the beef industry in building guidelines or providing suggestions to positively influence beef flavor. Additionally, this research will allow the industry to more effectively market beef to maximize positive beef flavor attributes to different consumer segments. 

The beef industry can also make great strides to improve beef flavor by investigating which beef production practices produce beef flavor profiles that are favorable to consumers. Variations in beef flavor have been demonstrated with different pre-harvest inputs such as genetics, days on feed, feed type and the use of growth enhancement technologies. Post-harvest beef processes such as aging time, quality grade and muscle type have also been investigated, and can have a positive or negative effect on beef flavor. 

Other recent checkoff-funded studies have been focused on kinetics, heat transfer and thermodynamic properties that affect beef flavor. These projects will ultimately answer many of the “whys” in relation to cooked beef flavor, and will aid in the development of models that account for both physical and chemical traits of cooked beef, and ultimately science-based solutions for improving beef flavor consistency. 

Conclusions

The understanding of beef flavor development is advancing with the funding of current checkoff research studies. These studies cover a wide variety of topics and ultimately aim to further the industry’s understanding of consumer preferences, thermodynamics, and influence of pre- and post-harvest processes, while also identifying key flavor precursor compounds. This track of research continues so the industry can successfully understand beef flavor in all of its complexity and positively influence beef flavor for the consumer.

Additional Resources

Tags: Beef Issues Quarterly, Trends Analyses, Winter 2015

December 21, 2015