Consumers endorse researchers' enhancements to lower-quality beef

June 19, 2003

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- When it comes to beef, shoppers want low prices, little visible fat and good color and cuts at the store. At the table, though, they want tenderness, flavor and juiciness. A new study based on taste testing of 103 consumers also says that beef enhanced with a sodium and phosphate solution pass the dinner-table quality test.

The standard components of enhancement -- 0.4 percent salt and 0.4 percent phosphate -- used in the study even elevated often tough and less tasty standard-grade round roasts to a quality similar to a more desirable non-enhanced steak (strip loin).

While the findings -- to appear in the October issue of Meat Science but already online -- are not startling, they reflect the complex qualities being juggled by the beef industry, said Susan Brewer, a professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Consumers who read product labels closely, she added, can seek out enhanced cuts of beef for delivery to their own tables.

While enhancement ingredients vary by producer, the Illinois study considered only standard levels of salt and phosphate. Some producers juggle the percentages or just use salt; they also may include different amounts of water, sometimes flavored with broth or other extracts, and other additives in an effort to boost the taste and juiciness of meat.

For the Illinois study, enhancement was done in cuts of beef taken from 12 Angus-Hereford steers that had been fed a standard diet or one supplemented with vitamin E, which is being added to many slaughter-bound beef cattle as a way to slow the oxidation of the meat. Oxidation causes color and flavor deterioration, especially in cooked meat that is not consumed right away and in irradiated beef.

The pork and turkey industries have been enhancing their products successfully to boost flavor and juiciness, Brewer said. "This treatment has been done a lot with pork, where reducing the fat also had reduced the tenderness, flavor and juiciness that fat usually contributes," she said. "Another effect of fat reduction has made some pork and beef more sensitive to cooking abuse such as overcooking."

So Brewer and colleagues set out to see how enhancement and vitamin E affected overall quality of fresh roasts and steaks, and if enhancement could boost consumer acceptability of roasts. Overall, the participating consumers reported that both enhanced roasts and steaks were juicier and better tasting than the non-enhanced cuts. Enhanced roasts were rated to be of equal quality to that of non-enhanced steaks.

Oxidation was not studied because only fresh cuts of meat were used, but the taste testers did determine that, in general, the presence of vitamin E in the meat did not produce bad flavors. However, enhanced steaks without vitamin E had the lowest shear value -- meaning they were easier to cut with a knife -- and were the juiciest in the view of the consumers. Vitamin E-containing non-enhanced steaks were the hardest to cut and had the lowest overall acceptability scores.

Taste-testers also found that steaks from the cattle not fed vitamin E were saltier and more flavorful -- findings that were unexpected and could not be readily explained.

"The predominant effect," the researchers wrote, "appears to be due to enhancement, because, regardless of vitamin E treatment, enhanced steaks and roasts were more juicy and tender, had higher overall acceptability scores and lower shear force values than non-enhanced cuts."
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In addition to Brewer, other authors of the study were Floyd K. McKeith, professor of animal sciences, and graduate students Kim Robbins, Jessica Jensen, Kevin J. Ryan and Candace Homco-Ryan.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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