Effects of grass feeding systems on ruminant meat colour and flavour. A review
Effects of grass feeding systems on ruminant meat colour and flavour. A review
Alessandro PRIOLO 0
Didier MICOL 0
Jacques AGABRIEL 0
0 Unité de Recherches sur les Herbivores, INRA Clermont-Ferrand-Theix , 63122 Saint-Genès-Champanelle , France
- Grass feeding has been reported to affect several meat quality characteristics, in particular colour and flavour. In this paper we have reviewed some differences in meat colour and flavour between ruminants fed concentrates and animals allowed to graze pasture. The possible factors influencing the differences have been also examined. We have examined a total of 35 experiments which report the effect of pasture vs concentrate finishing systems on beef meat colour. Meat from cattle raised on pasture is reported to be darker than meat from animals raised on concentrates if measured by objective (P < 0.001) as well as subjective (P < 0.05) methods. Several factors, not a specific one are responsible for this difference, variations in ultimate-pH and in intramuscular fat content between animals finished at pasture and those finished on concentrates, seem to play a major role. Diet also affects meat flavour in both sheep and cattle but the components involved seem to be different. In sheep pastoral flavour is mostly determined by the branched-chain fatty acids and 3-methylindole (skatole). An important role seems to be played also by some products of oxidation of linolenic acid and its derivates. In cattle the role of skatole seems to be less important than sheep because of the lack of the branched-chain fatty acids. The pastoral flavour seems to be mostly determined by products of oxidation of linolenic acid and its derivates which derives substantially from grass.
espèces. Chez l’agneau les flaveurs particulières liées à un régime à base d’herbe serait
majoritairement déterminée par l’association d’acides gras ramifiés et de scatole (3 méthyle indole), et dans une
moindre mesure par des produits issus de l’oxydation de l’acide linolénique. Inversement chez le boeuf,
le rôle du scatole serait réduit par l’absence d’acides gras ramifiés, et la flaveur de la viande liée au
pâturage serait plutôt à relier à l’oxydation de l’acide linolénique provenant de l’herbe.
alimentation à base d’herbe / couleur de la viande / flaveur de la viande / ruminants
Many factors influence ruminant meat
quality and all of them can be divided for
simplicity into two categories: factors
directly linked with the animal (breed, age,
sex, etc.) and factors external to the animal
(diet, weather, slaughtering procedures, etc.)
indicated by the generic expression
“environmental”. Among the environmental
factors, feeding plays an important role in the
determination of quality. However, the
specific effects of the dietary constituents on
meat quality are not easy to evaluate. The
feeding regime can have an influence on
animal growth rate and it is difficult to
establish if the meat characteristics are due to the
dietary components for their intrinsic
properties or if the diet has influenced growth
rate and the body composition in animals
]. Different carcass fatness could lead to
differences in the rate of rigor development
even if the carcasses are stored under the
same conditions [
]. This could influence
meat colour, tenderness, etc. In most of the
experiments that study the effect of a diet
on meat quality, the animals are slaughtered
at different ages (same weight, but
different growth rate) or at different weights (same
age and again different growth rate). This
problem is particularly evident when studies
make comparison between production
systems. Of course these experiments are
useful because they investigate real production
situations, however a correct interpretation
of the data is more difficult: how is it
possible to discriminate between the effects of
the diet on animal growth rate (and
indirectly on carcass and meat quality) and the
direct effects of the dietary constituents on
meat quality? Another problem of
interpretation of data is when a comparison of diets
on meat quality is made between animals
allowed to move freely and animals
restricted in feedlots. The effect of feeding
may be confounded with the different
The principal characteristic of herbivores
and ruminants in particular, is the capability
of the micro-organisms present in their gut
(or fore-stomach) to degrade (and utilise)
the cellulose. Ruminants convert forages
into products of high biological value,
useful for human nutrition (meat, milk, blood).
In recent years, however, the genetic
potential of the animals and the different
zootechnical practises have changed the situation. A
high-producing animal, has not the capacity
to ingest the energy requirements for his
high production, totally by forages and
requires concentrate supplementation.
Animals raised on different production
systems produce different concentrations of
volatile fatty acids (VFA) in the rumen. The
metabolism of propionate is very different
from that of acetate and from the VFA have
origin some different compounds
responsible for specific meat flavours. Since
propionate is the predominant glucogenic fatty
acid, in contrast to acetate [
], the VFA
metabolism also influences glycogen
deposition which has an effect on meat ultimate
pH and colour.
The objective of this work is to
determine what is known to date on the effect of
grass feeding systems on ruminant meat
colour and flavour. In conducing this review,
we have tried to determine which effects
were biased by animal growth rate and
which effects are directly due to the dietary
Although colour is only slightly
correlated with the eating characteristics of meat
], it is very important for the consumer’s
choice. Meat colour is measured
subjectively or objectively. Subjective measures
are generally taken in chillers by people
accustomed to it. There are four main
problems arising from this kind of measure:
(1) the methods utilized sometimes differ
from country to country; (2) there is a strong
influence of the different lighting in chillers;
(3) the subjective assessment is subject to
bias; (4) often meat is not allowed to bloom.
The objective measurements are generally
taken using the CIE colour system . The
three fundamental colour coordinates are
L*, a* and b*. L* is the lightness and is a
measure of the light reflected (100 = all light
reflected; 0 = all the light absorbed); a*
(positive red, negative green) and b* (positive
yellow, negative blue) are the other
coordinates. When conducting experiments,
appropriate blooming is important to allow
sufficient oxygenation of meat [
] and to reduce
the impact of rigor attainment temperature
on meat colour. Young et al. [
] found that
the temperature of rigor attainment has an
influence on meat lightness (L*) soon after
rigor during the first hour of blooming.
When the meat was allowed to bloom for
two hours or more, no effect of rigor
attainment temperature on meat lightness was
detected (rigor attainment temperature was
studied at 9, 14 and 24 °C). In many
countries, for commercial reasons, meat colour is
measured or assessed in abattoirs during the
first 24 h post mortem. However recent
] questions the validity of these
kinds of measurement because the
correlation between meat colour at the abattoir and
meat colour days or weeks later under
display is poor.
2.1. Effect of pasture vs. concentrate finishing on meat colour
To evaluate the effect of production
system on meat colour we have examined the
literature published between 1977 and 2000.
We have found 35 experiments which report
the effect of pasture (100%) vs. concentrate
finishing systems on beef meat colour
(longissimus muscle). Since the differences
reported by most of the authors concerned
meat lightness (for objective measurements)
or brightness (for subjective measurements),
we have restricted our attention to these
aspects of meat colour. The pattern of
instrumental lightness or visual brightness of
cattle longissimus muscle after grazing at
pasture or after being finished on concentrate is
shown in Figure 1. For each experiment we
have determined the difference in percentage
of lightness or brightness between animals
finished on pasture and those finished on
concentrate. The effect is evident and it is
clear that meat from animals finished on
pasture is darker than meat from animals
finished on concentrate. Animal finished
for 150 days on pasture had a value of
L* about 5% lower than animals finished
on concentrate. Considering values of
L* of about 45, this difference could be
quantified between 2 and 2.25 units. This
percentage was even higher when colour
was measured subjectively: after 200 days
on pasture meat is reported to be 10% less
bright than meat from animal finished on
concentrates. However, the linear
regression between objective L* value and time
on pasture was more significant (P < 0.001;
r2 = 0.74) than the linear regression between
visual brightness and time on pasture
(P < 0.05; r2 = 0.44). The cause of this effect
is extremely difficult to evaluate because
more than one factor plays an important
role. As an attempt to explain this pattern,
we have examined different factors that
could have contributed to influence meat
colour in these experiments. Direct effects of
the diet on meat colour are considered rare
and dependent on a direct effect of the diet
on muscle myoglobin [
myoglobin was seldom measured in the
experiments that we have examined and,
when measured, generally did not differ
between pasture and concentrate animals.
Meat colour may be also influenced by
factors such as carcass fatness, meat
ultimate pH, animal age, carcass weight and
intramuscular fat content. Considering that
the production system could have an
influence on all of these factors, we have tried,
through the results of the literature
consulted, to describe the relation between
production system, these parameters and meat
lightness (L*). For each of these factors we
have examined if the meat from animals
finished on pasture or on concentrate
correspond to different lightness and/or to
different values of each factor. The results are
presented in Figure 2a–2e.
2.1.1. Carcass fatness
Fattier carcasses allow the muscle a slower
cooling rate in chill rooms and therefore rigor
is attained at higher temperatures. A slower
cooling rate corresponds to a faster pH
decline and could be responsible for
differences in meat colour [
]. When we tried
to evaluate if the effects of animal finishing
on meat lightness were biased by carcass
fatness for the experiments that we have
examined (Fig. 2a), the results seem to exclude
this possibility. In several experiments we
found indeed that even if carcasses from
pasture were fattier than carcasses from
concentrate, the meat was still darker. Therefore
the effect of carcass fatness seems not to be
extremely important for meat colour.
2.1.2. Ultimate pH
There is without doubt a high correlation
between muscle ultimate pH and meat
colour and lightness in particular [
]. The under-nutrition is a primary
cause of high ultimate pH in meats  since
animals do not have the possibility to
accumulate sufficient glycogen reserve in their
muscles but this is not a case of major
concern for this review. Although pasture
feeding is typically rich in fibre and poor in
starch and the ratio acetate/propionate is
therefore higher, pasture-finished animals
have generally normal ultimate pH (although
higher than concentrate-finished animals).
In an experiment with Angus-cross steers
finished in ryegrass/clover pasture or
maizebased diets, Young et al.  reported
however a higher ultimate-pH variability in
animals raised on pasture and a significantly
lower residual glycogen and glycolytic
potential. Similar results have been reported by
Vestergaard et al. [
]. It is concluded that
pasture-finished animals have, in normal
conditions, enough glycogen to lead to a normal
ultimate-pH. However a lower glycolytic
potential and a higher disposition to
glycogen-depletion response to pre-slaughter
handling  could be a risk factor for high ultimate
pH. As confirmation of this, Immonen et al.
] reported that high-energy diets protect
cattle from potentially glycogen-depleting
stressors. Animals raised and finished on
pasture are not generally accustomed to the
35 40 45
meat lightness (L*)
35 40 45
meat lightness (L*)
meat lightness (L*)
meat lightness (L*)
human presence and handling, differing
from stall-finished animals and this could
have also some influence on the
pre-slaughter glycogen depletion. Data in Figure 2b
indicates that lightness value in pasture- and
concentrate-finished animals seems to be
highly influenced by ultimate pH in some
experiments. However, it should be noted
that concentrate-finished animals showed a
lighter meat colour even when the ultimate
pH was identical between groups as
evidence that ultimate-pH is not the only factor
influencing meat colour between
pastureand concentrate- animals. Unfortunately,
ultimate pH is not always measured.
2.1.3. Physical activity
Some authors [
] consider the
animal physical activity as a possible factor
meat lightness (L*)
affecting meat colour. Vestergaard et al.
] found that Freisian bull calves assigned
to extensive production system grazing
during the summer and housed with
roughagebased diets during winter had a darker
longissimus dorsi and semitendinosus
muscles than calves tie-stalled and fed
concentrate ad libitum. No significant differences in
the superspinatus muscle were found. These
differences could also be justified by a
difference in ultimate-pH which was slight,
but significantly higher on the samples from
animals raised on extensive system. Similar
results were reported by Muir et al. [
compared meat from 3-year-old Angus steers
finished on a high quality spring pasture
(ryegrass/white clover/ subterranean clover) with
animals finished on feedlot for different
durations (grass- and grain-finished animals
achieved similar live and carcass weights
at same age). Meat from grain-finished
steers was lighter (blooming 30 min air
temperature) than pasture-finished animals. The
authors concluded that the differences in
meat colour were probably due to the
physical activity of animals finished in pasture.
Differences in meat visual brightness
between Angus steers fed at age 14 months
for 111 days on pasture (improved annual
Australian pasture) or on a grain diet in
feedlot were also found by McIntyre and Ryan
] despite similar body weight and daily
gain. Animals from pasture had darker meat
and higher ultimate pH.
2.1.4. Age at slaughtering and carcass weight
Bidner et al.  found that
Angus-Hereford and Angus-Hereford-Brahman steers
raised on pasture and slaughtered at 482 kg
live weight had darker lean colour (visual
assessment) and higher myoglobin content
(longissimus dorsi) than steers raised on
feedlot. No differences in meat ultimate-pH
were found between groups. However it is
difficult to determine if there has been a
specific effect of diet components on
myoglobin content because the animals were
slaughtered at different ages (31 months for
forage-raised and 21 months for feedlot
animals) and myoglobin is reported to increase
with age with an impact on meat
]. However as reported in Figure 2c,
pasture-finishing systems resulted in darker
meat even in several experiments in which
animals were slaughtered at the same age.
Unfortunately in most of the experiments
in which animals were slaughtered at the
same age, the weight of the carcasses was
highly different between animals raised on
different production systems. For this reason
we have verified if carcass weight could
have been another element of bias for meat
lightness in these experiments. As reported
in Figure 2d, in most (but not in all)
experiments, concentrate-finished animals
had higher weights and lighter meat
colour. When the weights were comparable,
differences in meat lightness were also
detected in some experiments but not in
others. These results underscore the need for
more experiments in which pasture- and
concentrate-finished ruminants are brought
to similar body weight gain and are
slaughtered at similar age and weights. From these
results it seems that slaughter weight is also
important in determining meat lightness
from cattle finished on different production
An effect of growth rate (and
compensatory growth) on meat colour was reported
by Allingham et al. . Brahman cross steers
of age nine months were allowed to graze
for 257 days on an improved tropical
pasture (Australia) in order to allow a constant
body weight gain. Other animals were raised
with low quality grain hay for 100 days
(weight loss) and then realimented on high
energy feedlot for 157 days. The final body
weight was similar between groups but the
authors found that samples of
semitendinosus muscle were lighter (higher L*; meat
was allowed to bloom for 1 h at 4 °C) in
grain-finished animals than
pasture-uninterrupted ones. Ultimate-pH was not
responsible for this colour difference because it
was identical between groups. Different
growth rate with similar age and body
weight was also studied by Barker et al. 
in Wagyu · Angus steers and heifers. The
authors designed an experiment with two
production systems: a linear (16 months on
a grain-based diet) and a deferred (8 months
on forage and 8 months on grain). The meat
was darker (visual assessment) in the
deferred group with a slight but significant
higher fat thickness for linear animals.
Dufrasne et al. [
] found that Belgian Blue
bulls slaughtered at 560 kg of body weight
had higher L* value in the longissimus
thoracis muscle when the animals were
finished indoor (FI) on a concentrate diet
compared to bulls allowed to graze for 140 days
at a high stocking rate (eight bulls per ha;
botanical composition: Lolium perenne,
Phleum pratense and Trifolium repens) and
then finished indoors (HGFI). Animals
allowed to graze for 140 days in a medium
stocking rate (6 animal per ha) and then
finished indoor (MGFI) showed a meat L*
comparable and between the other two
groups (indoor and high stocking rate
grazing). The comparability between the
lightness of sample from animal raised on MGFI
and animals finished indoors, seems to
indicate that the difference between HGFI and
FI samples is not due to the different
physical activities. Another interesting aspect of
this experiment was the results for carcass
tissue proportion. The adipose tissue
proportion was indeed comparable between
HGFI and FI animals. No difference in meat
colour due to different cooling rates was
therefore expected. Also, the difference in
meat colour was not due to the ultimate pH
which was comparable between FI and
HGFI samples and the authors found no
differences in myoglobin content and justified
the difference in meat colour by the
presence of pigments such as carotenes found
in the grass.
2.1.5. Intramuscular fat
Intramuscular fat content could be also
responsible for part of the differences in
meat lightness found between animals raised
in different production systems. Fat is lighter
in colour than muscle and therefore its
presence could contribute to an increased
lightness value. Hedrick et al. [
higher values of lightness for
HerefordAngus crossbred steers raised on
concentrate compared to animal raised on pasture.
Difference in intramuscular fat content were
considered by the authors to be responsible
for these meat colour differences although
they did not measure intramuscular fat but
marbling score. Data from Figure 2e indicate
that if intramuscular fat has an influence on
meat lightness, it is not the only reason for
differences found between meats obtained
from animal raised in different production
systems. In conclusion, an extensive
production system tends to produce a darker
meat. For this difference, however, several
factors more than a specific one, seem to
play a role.
Generally red meat consumers consider
the meat obtained from animals raised on
pasture to be different from that obtained
from animal raised on concentrates,
especially in terms of flavours. Hilliam (1995),
cited by Keane and Allen [
] (data from
European Union) report that “there is a
perception amongst consumers that meat from
animals produced less intensively has a
better taste”. On the contrary, in the US
grassfinished beef is less acceptable for its flavour
than grain-finished beef [
39, 45, 67
et al.  report the term “grass” to indicate
meat from cattle raised on forage diets; other
descriptor include “milky”, “fishy”,
“rancid”. Similar descriptors have been used for
sheep meat [
]. Some flavour
differences between beef from animals raised on
concentrate or on pasture are reported in
Figure 3. It is evident from the graph that
the strongest flavour descriptors such as
“Barnyard” or “Grassy” are more intense
in the pasture-finished animals. When
studying meat flavour it is important to
distinguish between the analytical approach which
tries to describe a product independently
from its appreciation and the hedonic
approach which is linked to the consumer’s
preferences . The consumer’s
preference between different flavours is
dependent on previous experience and culture [
]. For example, the flavour differences
found between animals raised in different
production systems have an effect on
acceptability of US consumer’s . We have
found 16 experiments published from United
States in which meat from cattle raised in
pasture or concentrates was compared for
the acceptability of its flavour. Only on two
occasions flavour was considered more
acceptable when the meat was from animals
raised on pasture, while the meat from
animals raised on concentrate was more
Some authors have tried to understand
how long it takes for animals raised on
pasture, to reduce the flavour characteristics of
grass. Melton et al. [
] and Larick et al.
] slaughtered some cattle out of pasture
and others animals were instead switched
to concentrate. At regular intervals some of
these animals were then slaughtered. The
results of flavour intensity are presented in
Figure 4 and the data suggest that it takes
at least 3 months to eliminate the typical
grass flavours (milky and grassy).
Data relative to meat flavour between
animals raised on different production
systems, could be affected by different carcass
]. As discussed in the section
regarding meat colour, production system
could affect meat ultimate pH. Young et al.
] report a reduction of sheep meat flavour
and an intensification in off-flavours when
meat ultimate pH is high. Similar results
have been reported by Priolo et al. [
high ultimate-pH was caused by the
presence of condensed tannins in the diet.
Braggins  induced high ultimate pH in lamb
meat by adrenaline injection. He found that
meat at ultimate pH of 6.81 and even 6.26
had a more undesirable flavour as judged
by panellists than meat at normal pH (5.66).
In the headspace examinations the author
identified 54 odour-active compounds. Ten
of them (most of these compounds were
aldehydes) were found to be pH-dependent.
High-ultimate-pH beef meat has also been
described as less acceptable by sensory
3.1. Compounds responsible for meat flavour and relationship with the diet
Over 1000 volatile compounds
responsible for meat flavour have been identified
time on grain (d)
] and some of them can be influenced
by dietary constituents. However, it is not
easy to understand which chemicals are
responsible for these differences and what is
the level of contribution of each single
component to the whole flavour. Some
compounds are species-specific and other
compounds, even if present have a different
flavour effect depending on the animal
species. For this reason meat flavour has a
high species specificity. For example,
sheepmeat flavour is different from that of beef.
We have tried to describe some
compounds important for sheep and cattle meat
flavour, their effect on flavour and the
relationship between dietary components and
3.1.1. Branched chain fatty acids
Between the compounds responsible for
the typical sheepmeat flavour without doubt
the methyl-branched-chain fatty acids
(BCFA), and particularly 4-methyloctanoic
and 4-methylnonanoic acids [
very important. These compounds have been
considered responsible for undesirable
flavour of cooked mutton [
Regarding their correlation with sheepmeat flavour/
odour, Young et al. [
] showed that a high
concentration of these acids corresponds
with high sheepmeat odour; however
sheepmeat odour could be very high even when
their concentrations are not high. This means
that other compounds are surely involved
in the sheep meat odour/flavour. The dietary
origin of the BCFA is clear: they derive
from ruminal propionate. Ruminal
propionate is the main source for liver
]. However, when propionate
levels exceed the capacity of the liver to
metabolise it normally, there is production of
]. The fact that sheep and goats, in
comparison to cattle, accumulate these
compounds as result of restricted-roughage
highgrain diets, suggest a possible different
mode and extent of propionate metabolism
between ruminant species [
]. Ha and
] suggested a specific selectivity
in the action of enzymes involved in the
synthesis of some BCFA between different
ruminant species. Young et al. [
that male Romney lambs raised from 73 to
232 days of age on feedlots based on alfalfa
(78%) or crushed maize (59%) had
concentrations of BCFA significantly higher in the
subcutaneous fat, compared to animals
grazed on ryegrass/clover pasture for the
duration of the trial. However the diet effect
seems to be much less important than the
sex effect (and age when linked to sexual
maturity). For example, male rams (200 days
of age) have been reported to have
significantly higher amount of 4-methyloctanoic
acid than castrated rams [
]. Also, in the
experiment of Rousset-Akrim et al. [
and Young et al. [
] 4-methyloctanoic and
4-methylnonanoic acids were higher in the
male lambs slaughtered at around 215 days
compared to animals slaughtered at 100 days
or less. It is clear that an extensive feeding
regime, at equal slaughter age, could result
in a reduction of these methyl-BCFA in
sheep because of the higher ratio of
acetate/propionate due to the higher fibre
content of forages compared with
concentrates. It is not easy to understand the real
relationship between increasing level of the
BCFA and sheepmeat flavour and the
interaction between BCFA and other compounds
has been suggested [
3.1.2. Indoles and phenoles
Although BCFA contribute to the
characteristic sheepmeat flavour, it seems that
this is strongly correlated with the
contemporary presence of 3-methylindole (skatole,
a fecal-smelly compound) [
]. BCFA could
be responsible for sheepmeat flavour and
skatole could increase their perception.
Because a more extensive production system
reduces the concentration of BCFA but
significantly increases skatole, it seems
reasonable to conclude that pasture systems
seem to increase sheepmeat flavour
perception (the BCFA are at lower level but
still sufficient to “activate” sheep meat
flavour). In an experiment with Romney
lambs slaughtered at 132 and 232 days of
age after grazing on ryegrass/clover or
receiving concentrate on feedlot, Young
et al. [
] and Young and Priolo [
that skatole was present in pasture animals
but only at basal levels in concentrate
animals. Sheepmeat odour and flavour
perception of panellists was higher for
pastureraised lambs although BCFA, as expected,
were higher in feedlot animals. In a
principal components analysis between frequency
of panel descriptions and chemical
compounds, Young et al. [
], found skatole to
be in the same quadrant of sheep meat
perception (Fig. 5) and in the opposite
quadrant of lamb perception. The panellists were
New Zealanders, accustomed to eating ovine
meat. In New Zealand the term “lamb” has
a good connotation while “sheep” does not.
The word “sheepy” is roughly synonymous
with “mutton”, a decidedly negative term. A
difference in the animals diet was therefore
identified by panellist rather as a difference
in the age of animals. This could be
justified by the amplification of the BCFA
perception caused by the skatole.
Skatole is a product of degradation of
tryptophan and has been associated with
unpleasant odour in meat from entire male
pigs . Why the level of skatole is higher
in fat from ruminants finished on pasture is
not clear. Young et al. [
] suggest that the
higher ratio of protein/non-fibrous
carbohydrate characteristic of grass diets, enhances
skatole production through a higher
deamination of protein amino acids by rumen
microbes. It should be also noted that the
diet has an important effect on the
microorganisms species present in the ruminal
] and that different
micro-organisms may degrade tryptophan differently
and therefore produce skatole.
The contribution of skatole to the
typical pastoral flavour in beef seems to be less
important than in sheep. In a recent study,
Young et al. [
] showed that cattle switched
from ryegrass/clover pasture to maize silage
diets reduced the indole and skatole to basal
concentrations in the kidney fat within two
weeks (Fig. 6). However, when the rendered
fat was presented to panellists for odour
assessment, differences were found only for
“milky” odour which was higher in pasture
samples (Fig. 7). It is also interesting to
note that the term “faecal” was avoided by
Principal component 1
panellists. These results, together with the
fact that it certainly takes much longer than
two weeks to change from the pastoral to
the grain finishing flavour [
] make it
clear that there are other compounds that
play a major role on the determination of
pastoral beef flavour. It should be also noted
that if sheep pastoral flavour could be caused
by the interaction of 4-methyloctanoic acid
and 4-methylnonanoic acid with skatole and
indole, on the other hand in beef fat the level
of these BCFA is much lower and the effect
of skatole and indole is (consequently?) also
reduced. Maruri and Larick (1992) cited
by Young et al.  found no connection
between skatole and pastoral flavour in
Phenols have been indicated as possible
compounds responsible for meat pastoral
]. As possible grass precursors
of phenols, Ha and Lindsay [
lignin and diterpens. Within phenols,
particular interest has been given to 3- and
4-methylphenol which have been
associated with pastoral diets in sheep [
a comparison between Angus cross steers
(age 14 months) finished for 9 weeks on
ryegrass/clover pasture or restricted grain
diet, no difference in 4-methylphenol in
subcutaneous fat was found by Lane and
3.1.3. Linolenic acid and its products of oxidation
The fatty acid composition of meat can
also affect meat flavour [
micro-organisms hydrogenate dietary lipids
which results in an increase in saturated fatty
acids in animal tissues compared to the diet
profile. However, part of the unsaturated
fatty acids could escape ruminal
] and diet can influence fatty
acid composition of ruminant tissue .
Diets rich in concentrates normally increase
the levels of unsaturation of fatty acids in
ruminant fat [
] and as a consequence
fat appears to be softer . This happens
because the micro-organisms dominant in
the ruminal environment when concentrate
diets are given, perform a reduced
hydrogenation compared to the micro-organisms
dominant when the diets are rich in
]. The unsaturated linolenic acid
(C18:3) is a fatty acid characteristic of forage
] and is notoriously not
synthesized by mammals [
]. Since part of the
dietary linolenic acid escapes ruminal
hydrogenation, animals raised on pasture have a
higher proportion of this acid in the carcass
compared to grain-raised ruminants [
Hereford and Angus steers fed corn after
grazing on pasture, Melton et al. [
a reduction of linolenic acid concentration
(from 2.16% to 0.86%) up to 140 days.
Similar results are reported by Mandell et al.
] in Limousin-cross steers and by Garcia
and Casal [
] in Angus steers. Similar
results have also been reported in sheep [
Grass diets, as important source of linolenic
acid, lead to increased levels of long chain
n-3 fatty acids synthesised from C18:3 [
Two derivates of linolenic acid, the
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; 20:5) and
docosahexaenoic acid (DHA; 22:6) are restricted to
the phospolipid fraction and probably play
an important role in meat flavour formation
during cooking [
]. Very important
implications for human nutrition have
been described by Enser et al. [
increased consumption of these fatty acids
has been recommended. The variation of
linolenic acid in intramuscular fat of cattle
after grazing on pasture or fed on
concentrate is reported in Figure 8 (based on results
from 22 experiments). Grazing for six
months on pasture has an effect of
increasing intramuscular linolenic acid by 50% in
cattle. Further time spent on pasture seems
not to have an effect on linolenic acid
There are important flavour implications
with this pattern because products of
oxidation of linolenic acid have been
associated with species flavours of meat as result
of the formation of volatile compounds
during cooking [
]. The oxidative
degradation of fatty acids with the formation of an
alkyl radical from a fatty acid occur faster
with polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA)
than oleic or linoleic acid [
]. Derivates of
linolenic acid such as EPA and DHA are
particularly prone to autoxidation. Meat
derived from ruminants consuming grass is
on the other hand, protected from oxidation
by the presence of antioxidants in the grass
]. For example, tocopherol
concentration is much higher in green leaf tissue than
in grain or hay [
] and this could have
implications in both meat flavour and colour.
Melton et al. [
] found that C18:3 was
positively correlated (P < 0.001) with
milkyoily aroma and flavour and with sour
flavour. Oleic acid (C18:1; characteristic of
maize-based diets) was negatively
correlated with these attributes. Melton et al. [
found that higher levels of C18:3 were related
to less desirable beef flavour to untrained
American assessors. Flavour intensity was
positively correlated with C18:3 in a study
that compared British and Spanish lambs
]. Assuming that linolenic acid has a very
important role in meat flavour, Young and
] proposed that one of the
compounds responsible for pastoral odour in
cattle is 4-heptenal, a product of oxidation of
linolenic acid reported to be a highly
unpleasant odorant. This compound was
initially found in traces in sheep fat [
was positively detected, in a principal
components analysis of correlations between
panel descriptors and compounds,
4-heptenal fell in the quadrant of unpleasant
] (Fig. 5). Differences in 4-heptenal
concentrations due to the diet were detected
in the headspace of cooked longissimus
muscle from lambs by Elmore et al. [
3.2. Effect of different type of pasture on meat flavour
Larick and Turner [
] found that meat
from 17-month old Hereford-Angus heifers
allowed to graze sorghum-sudangrass for
84 days had a sweeter flavour and a gamier
aftertaste than meat from heifers allowed to
graze on fescue-clover pasture. When the
heifers were switched to feedlot (rolled corn,
corn silage and soybean meal) the sweet
flavour and the gamey aftertaste were
significantly reduced after 54 days. As a
possible explanation for the sweet flavour the
authors considered the possibility that
unsaturated lactones formed from the oxidation of
C18:3 could be contributing to the difference
in sweet flavour. The same authors found
that meat from heifers on fescue-clover had
higher “sour” flavour than meat on
sorghumsudangrass. The passage from pasture to
feedlot also significantly increased sour
flavour. Seven different pasture species were
utilised by Young et al. [
] to assess sheep
meat flavour. Six-month old lambs were
allowed to graze for six weeks single species
swards of ryegrass (Lolium perenne), tall
fescue (Festuca arundinacea), cocksfoot
(Dactylis glomerata), Phalaris (Phalaris
aquatics), Lucerne (Medicago sativa),
chicory (Chicorium intybus) and prairie
grass (Bromus wildenowii). Animals grazing
on Phalaris gave meat samples with the
highest intensity of foreign flavours and a
higher ultimate-pH variability. However
ultimate pH was not the only reason for the
difference on meat flavour because even
samples with normal ultimate pH gave high
foreign flavours. An opposite result was
reported by Park et al. [
] who found that
meat from animals grazing lucerne had a
higher incidence of foreign flavours than
that of animals grazing phalaris. Anyway,
except for the case of phalaris, the study of
Young et al. [
] showed that meat from
lambs fed seven different pastures did not
differ in acceptability. In a comparison
between lambs grazed on perennial pasture
(Lolium perenne, Dactilis glomerata and
Trifolium repens), Hopkins et al. [
that if the pasture was irrigated meat flavour
was significantly reduced but no effect on
meat acceptability was found. An increase of
sheep meat flavour has been reported by
Hopkins et al. [
] when Brassica napus
was grazed in comparison with an irrigated
pasture similar to that utilized by Hopkins et
]. Meat acceptability was not
Diet components and particularly grass
regimes can affect meat colour and flavour
in both cattle and sheep. Meat from
ruminants raised and finished on pasture is
generally darker than meat from animals fed
concentrates. This result has been reported
by several researchers after measuring
colour objectively as well as subjectively.
It appears that more than one factor plays a
role in these differences; the tendency to a
higher ultimate pH, or the different growth
rate between animals are two examples.
Meat flavour is also influenced by diet. In
sheep, pastoral flavour seems to be
determined by the association of BCFA and
3-methylindole (skatole). An important role
also seems to be played by some products of
oxidation of linolenic acid. In cattle, the role
of skatole seems to be less important than
sheep and pastoral flavour seems to be
determined by products of oxidation of linolenic
acid and its derivates which derive
substantially from grass feeding.
We would like to thank the “Institut de
l’Élevage” (France) and in particular J. Lubert
and S. Jabet for economical support and for their
valuable discussion and advice during the
preparation of this manuscript.
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