By Dr. Katie Mason, Assistant Professor and Extension Beef Cattle Nutrition Specialist, Dept. of Animal Science, University of Tennessee
I am a firm believer that when it comes to food, we should have options. But we should make choices based on knowledge and experience, rather than what we read online or hear about in various media. I feel strongly about providing students with opportunities to learn more about food choices and how to have an informed conversation surrounding those choices.
Recently, students in my Beef Management class participated in a blind taste panel. They were given the opportunity to try five different products: choice ribeye, wagyu sirloin, prime ribeye, grass-fed organic ribeye, and the Impossible burger. It is important to note that this was not a trained taste panel, students were not required to eat any sample that they did not want, and there was variety in the types of cuts. From a beef quality standpoint, there was some variation among these samples, e.g. ribeye vs. sirloin vs. ground product, that might result in “unfair” comparison. However, the true purpose of the taste panel was really just to give the students the chance to try something they maybe have not tried before, and then follow up with conversations about why they may or may not eat the product again.
The students were given one piece of each product and asked to rank the samples. Products were ranked based on tenderness, juiciness, beef-flavor, and off-flavor, on a 1 – 9 scale. On the scale, 1 corresponds with positive characteristics: extremely tender and juicy with a strong beef-flavor and no off-flavor; 9 was the opposite, or negative characteristics. A quick overview of the students’ rankings can be found here:
Based on the results, students generally liked the choice ribeye best. They noted that the grass-fed ribeye was less juicy and tender, and several picked up what they called a “gamey, earthy, or sour” flavor. But they also indicated that the wagyu sirloin was not as tender or juicy as they anticipated. Remember, this was a sirloin, so it could not compare directly to the ribeyes in the panel. For the Impossible burger, students found it to be “tender,” but many commented that it was “mushy or crumbly.” They described it as tasting “nothing like beef, unique, and no good.” Again, this ground product was not a perfect comparison to a whole muscle cut of beef, and when I do this again I will have a ground beef comparison option.
After they completed their score sheets, the products were revealed to the students. There was a discussion about differences in quality grades and cuts, and they were asked if they were surprised by any of the results. Many of the students were surprised that they liked the choice ribeye the best, especially when they anticipated a greater palatability from the prime and wagyu steaks. Most students had not tried wagyu or grass-fed beef, nor the Impossible burger; a few said they might try these products again, while several said they would stick to a choice ribeye.
The purpose of this panel was not to promote or vilify any of the products that were tried. It was to create an opportunity for students to try something and form their own opinion, so that when they move on to their respective careers, whether within or outside of the beef industry, they can say, “I’ve tried that and I [do/do not] like it because [reason].” This empowers students to make food choices for themselves and have background knowledge to share with others. As the semester wraps up, we will finish with my favorite lecture: hot topics. In this lecture, I present students with various hot topics in the beef industry, one being beef and meat alternatives. They are asked to discuss their viewpoints and prepare to have these impactful conversations with others outside of the classroom. It’s always exciting to hear their discussion about the role of beef in the diet and how the beef industry takes great care to produce a sustainable and wholesome product.
It is encouraging to watch students expand their knowledge of the beef industry throughout the semester. I hope to continue providing opportunities for growth and I cannot wait to see these students become advocates for agriculture.
Originally published in the June 2023 edition of the Tennessee Cattle Business Magazine.