Processing meat cuts for ageing populations: ‘Meat is an important source of protein, but many struggle to chew and digest it’

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

A cut of top round beef after mechanical tenderisation. Image credit: Jon-Are Berg-Jacobsen, Nofima
A cut of top round beef after mechanical tenderisation. Image credit: Jon-Are Berg-Jacobsen, Nofima

Related tags Meat processing Ageing Nofima

In an effort to prevent malnutrition in ageing populations, researchers in Norway are investigating whether mechanically tenderising and brining meat can make it tender enough for ‘older palates’.

Malnutrition is a known risk amongst older populations. In Europe, between 13.5% and 29.7% of over adults living at home are malnourished or at risk of protein-energy malnutrition (PEM).

PEM refers to ‘an imbalance between the supply of protein and energy and the body’s demand for them to ensure optimal growth and function’, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

To prevent against malnourishment and PEM, researchers in Norway are turning to meat, which is not only a good source of protein, but one that many older people know and like.

Turning ‘tough and dry’ meat into ‘tender and juicy’ cuts

The problem is that ageing populations can struggle to chew and digest meat. In the home, meat can be pounded to make it more tender, but this process is also a challenge for some ageing consumers.

Researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries and Aquaculture Research (Nofima), under the three-year Eat4Age network project, are investigating mechanical tenderising for industry. The overall aim of the Eat4Age project is to develop tasty, nutritious, and easily digestible food to prevent malnutrition amongst the elderly.

Other participants include NRAE, The Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, Technion, The University of Leeds, Teagasc Food Research Centre, Nortura, and GatFoods.

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Nofima experts Tom Johannessen and Rune Rødbøtten sort the meat before it is sent to the kitchen for preparation and tasting. Image credit: Jon-Are Berg-Jacobsen, Nofima

“Pure cuts of meat are both an important source of protein and a food that many elderly people are used to eating and that they have really enjoyed throughout their lives,” ​explained project lead Paula Varela Tomasco, a senior scientist at Nofima.

“However, there are also many elderly people who stop eating meat because they struggle to chew and digest it. Therefore, it is important to develop tenderer and juicier cuts of meat for this target group, providing easily digestible and highly nutritious protein, in a liked and familiar food.”

In Tomasco’s research to date, the scientist has observed that texture and mouthfeel is of ‘great importance’ when identifying which foods older consumers prefer. Cuts of meat that haven’t been tenderised can be tough and dry.

“It’s not surprising that a dry and chewy texture is not favoured by older consumers. On the other hand, they aren’t too keen on a sticky texture either,” ​the scientist explained. “Think brioche dough; its glutinous texture makes it stick to your teeth and palate, and it is very uncomfortable for people who have difficulty swallowing or have dentures.

“We also try to avoid slightly bitter or astringent flavours, as mouth-drying perception is sometimes enhanced in the elderly.”

Mixing mechanical tenderisation with brine

It is well known that meat can be made more tender by using mechanical tenderisation, but the process is still rarely used in Norway. Under the Eat4Age project, Nofima scientists are conducting trials on how mechanical tenderisation and various brines affect the tenderness and juiciness of beef.

tenderloin NightAndDayImages
Results to date indicate that tougher cuts, such as beef top round and eye of round, can become as tender as tenderloin. GettyImages/NightAndDayImages

Mechanical tenderisation involves cutting small incision in the meat, giving the same effect as tenderising the meat by pounding it. This technique could help make cuts of beef more accessible to the elderly, but also to other groups that prefer tender and juicy meat.

At the same time, the researchers are investigating whether meat becomes even more tender and juicy by adding brine, including a brine with a protein mixture based on rest raw materials.

“There is a lot of water in meat, and the contents of the brine help the meat to better retain its own liquid, even during heat treatment,” ​explained Nofima’s Tom Johannessen. “Tough muscles have stronger connective tissue than tender ones. That is why we have chosen three muscles with different amounts of connective tissue for this trial.”

These include tenderloin, eye of round, and top round. Some they processed using both mechanical tenderisation and brine – either a standard brine made of water, salt and phosphate, or the brine with the added protein mixture. Some were tested using the standard brine only.

Findings and next steps

So far, results indicate that tougher cuts, such as beef top round and eye of round, can become as tender as tenderloin.

“It turns out that the combination of mechanical tenderisation and brine produces very good results,” ​noted scientist Rune Rødbotten. “The tenderloin is far more tender the other cuts of beef when they are all unprocessed, but my processing the top round and eye of round cuts using mechanical tenderisation and brine, they become just as tender and juicy as the unprocessed tenderloin.”

Between now and the end of March 2024, when the project ends, the researchers will concentrate on the top round cut of beef to taste test more variations. These include testing unprocessed top round, top round using only mechanical tenderisation, top round using standard brine and mechanical tenderisation, and top round using protein-enriched brine and mechanical tenderisation.

“We want to find out whether other cuts of meat which currently cost less money, such as stewing beef or bottom round, can be tender enough for older palates, and tastier for others,” ​added Johannessen, “if processed using mechanical tenderisation and the right brine.”

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