Can new sensory methods tell us more about meat eating quality?

  • In today's consumer-driven world, ensuring consistent high-quality beef is necessary. In Irish beef farming, cattle spend up to 8-months annually at pasture, however, in winter the feed can vary depending on the farm. Highly trained sensory panellists can pick out a wide range of flavours in beef depending on the cattle’s diet composition (Maughan et al., 2013) but can consumers?  Using a new sensory testing technique, my research looks at how three different feeding systems influence consumer liking of beef steaks over the whole eating process.


    Cattle's Diets

    Three different diets are being used for my research which are:

    1. 100% grass-fed - pasture-fed in summer and silage fed in winter. 
    2. Majority grass-fed - pasture-fed in summer and grass silage-fed with small amounts of grains (barley) in winter.  
    3. Majority grass-fed with grain finishing – as system 2 but grain (barley) is increased to diet majority for the last 4 months.

    In Ireland, cattle spend as long as possible outdoors during the year, which is often weather dependent. The winter diet of cattle can vary depending on how good the silage yield was during the year. The aim is to feed as much silage to cattle during the winter as possible as it as similar to grass as you can get (apart from hay), however, if the is bad weather where cattle must stay inside for longer stocks of silage can run low (or out) and it is necessary to supplement. Some farmers also supplement their cattle diet as this can reduce the time to ideal slaughter weight.


    Does the diet have much effect on the meat?

    Yes and no. It depends on what you look at. The colour differences in both the meat and the fat are well researched along with the nutritional value is well researched. If cattle are fed mostly (or all) grass, it’s been found that the meat is slightly less red, and the fat is slightly more yellow. Only slightly though. Nutritional value is also affected. Feeding more grass increases the amount of some unsaturated fatty acids in the meat, such as omega-3 which is good for heart health.  


    Why is the sensory experience so important?

    Think about your own purchasing experience for meat or any product. If you bought a food product and it didn’t taste as good as you thought it would, or the texture or flavour wasn’t quite right, would you buy it again? A consumer's eating experience needs to match or exceeds their expectations for the product. Packaging, colour, and price can influence if what steaks consumers in the first place but the eating experience, characteristics such as tenderness, juiciness, and flavour,  often dictate if they will buy it again.


    How do we measure liking?

    Liking is measured using sensory testing, which conducted in a sensory booth with red lighting for meat (masks any colour variance in individual products. Traditionally, consumers just gave one overall score for liking but, during the eating process any food product, a consumer's opinion can change many times, so an overall score doesn’t tell us much. Did their overall liking of the product change or did their liking of a particular attribute change (e.g.) texture? When did it change?

    For my research, I’m using a new sensory method called temporal liking. Temporal liking is where the consumer is asked to indicate when their liking of a product (e.g. steak) or its characteristics (tenderness, juiciness, flavour) changes throughout the eating process.


     Image of a set up sensory booth for consumer testing with red lighting (used with red meat)

    (a chair and desk with a computer, keyboard, mouse, a cup of water, a plate, fork, and a consent form placed on the desk. A hatch for serving samples is also present in the back of the booth)


    Why would your liking change throughout the eating process?

    The eating process is long and starts from when the consumer seeing the product (before they start to eat it), continues during mastication (actual eating) and ends when the last sensation of aftertaste has faded. Everyone makes judgements on how a food will taste from its appearance and how the characteristics of food change while they are eating it. Have you ever eaten a food product and something about it, like the flavour or texture, changed during eating and your liking of the food changed? ‘That had a weird aftertaste’ or ‘uh, I’m not so sure about it’ are phrases that I’ve often heard.

    I’ll use an example of a consumer’s liking, neutral or disliking could change during the process of eating a cooked steak:

    1. Appearance – the very first opinion is formed. If the steak smells good, has good colour and the 'right' amount of fat (opinion varies from person to person), expectations would be high. 
    2. Cutting of the steak (with a fork) – how much effort did it take? Too much – this will be a tough steak. Easily cut – it will be tender.

    All before the eating process has even begun! 


    1. Start of the eating process - The teeth pierce the meat. How much force did it take to bite the meat? Did juice rush out? Yes, it’s a juicy steak. No, it’s a dry steak. Does the meat taste good?
    2. Chewing – Does the juiciness fade? If it does, enjoyment can decrease. Do any ‘undesirable’ flavour notes arise? How long does chewing take until swallowing – time is a key factor here.  
    3. Swallowing and Aftertaste – Do any strange aftertastes arise? Even if a steak has been liked up to this point, your opinion will change instantly if there is a strange aftertaste. That will be the most memorable characteristic.  



    In short, liking is complicated. We don’t really understand it yet but hopefully using new techniques like temporal liking will tell us more not only about how liking changes over the eating process but why. Specifically, for my research, I hope that we will be able to learn more about consumer perception of meat from cattle fed different diets than the traditional methods have told us so far.