Seeking succulence: the goal of maximizing the taste of beef is furthered by a hand-held device. Credit: A. GAROFALO/ REUTERS

Japanese researchers have developed a device to objectively assess the deliciousness of meat — an important concern for a nation that is especially demanding about the quality of its beef.

Japan's Wagyu beef is prized for its marbled fat, which gives the meat its particular flavour, succulence and tenderness. But marbling is not the whole story, says Masakazu Irie, an expert in animal husbandry at the University of Miyazaki. Meat doesn't necessarily get tastier as marbling increases. “If the fat is hard, with a high melting point, it can be like eating a candle,” he says. But not all soft fat is good either — fat high in linoleic acid is soft and still unpleasant, Irie notes.

If the fat is hard, with a high melting point, it can be like eating a candle.

Irie and his colleagues have come up with a hand-held, portable device that measures the concentration of oleic acid in the meat. This monounsaturated fat, they say, is a reliable indicator of tastiness. A fibre-optic probe directs near-infrared light into the meat, and the light bounces off the fat with a signature dependent on the type of fat and its concentration. The result can be read within seconds and doesn't damage the meat.

But Carol Christensen, a former taste researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says that Irie's device is unlikely to be able to replace the tongue. “Food manufacturers want to replace human sensory panels with metrics, but I think it is just a pipedream,” she says. “There's a lot going on in your mouth.”

Irie plans to use the device in another project led by Tadashi Kawamura at the National Livestock Breeding Center in Fukushima. Kawamura is trying to establish a system for rating beef based on its chemical properties. He has a panel of more than 10 trained beef tasters who are judging sensory characteristics, such as how tender, fatty and juicy the meat is. These data will then be matched with chemical data on the concentration of some 20 components in beef, including oleic acid and inosinic acid, which enhances umami, the taste associated with monosodium glutamate.

Kawamura hopes that supermarkets and restaurants might some day offer steaks with a standardized ranking, perhaps on a scale of 1–5, for qualities such as juiciness and fattiness.

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