Quality notes

Flavour plays a vital role in the enjoyment of meat. After tenderness, surveys show it is the next important factor for consumers.

After enjoying a good steak, chop or roast, the flavour is what we remember the most and what will bring us back for more. The senses of smell and taste are closely related. Looking at the results from our panel taste tests, the scores given by the panellists for odour are always closely related to those for flavour - and change in a similar way if flavour has been changed during production or processing.

The flavour arises from sugars, proteins and fats in the meat and develops during cooking. The number of compounds implicated in flavour development and identified by instruments such as the mass spectrometer runs into hundreds. Compounds formed from reactions between sugars and proteins are important and different fatty acids have specific roles. For example, they explain differences between species and between grass-fed and grain (concentrate)-fed beef. Grass-fed beef and lamb have high concentrations of Omega 3 fatty acids, which produce complex molecules as they oxidise during cooking and lead to a more intense and deeper flavour than the compounds formed from grain-fed beef and lamb.

This distinction between grass and concentrate feeding is most marked for lamb and leads to very different reactions from consumers. Those in countries where grass feeding is the norm - for example the UK and New Zealand - usually say they prefer grass-fed lamb, but those from southern Mediterranean countries where grain feeding is common, prefer the 'lighter' taste that comes from grains. Americans in general prefer grain-fed to grass-fed beef on flavour grounds, although grass-fed beef is gaining in popularity.


Jeff Wood, professor of food animal science, Bristol University