The five-year (2007-2012), government-backed ProBeef project, which is co-ordinated by the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) at Aberystwyth, is running in parallel with the larger EU-funded ProSafeBeef project, which is looking at microbiological and chemical contaminants in beef and beef products and innovations in beef processing and products.
The primary focus of ProBeef is exploring how feeding cattle more perennial ryegrass (which contains omega-3 fatty acids such as linolenic acid) could help produce beef containing the more beneficial omega-3s such as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) found in oily fish.
But it is also looking at the effects of a diet rich in red clover (which contains an enzyme which protects proteins and fats from the actions of micro-organisms in the cattle rumen) linseed oil (which is high in alpha linolenic acid), echium oil (which is high in stearidonic acid), or a plant extract from lucerne (alfalfa) leaf (high in healthy fats and protein), on the final fatty acid profile of beef.
While the levels of EPA and DHA (the omega-3s linked to cardiovascular and brain health) in the meat would not be as high as those in oily fish, far more consumers ate and enjoyed red meat, project leader professor Nigel Scollan from IGER’s animal and microbial sciences research division told FoodManufacture.co.uk.
“We’ve just started looking at the levels that could be achieved and obviously reaching the level that would enable firms to say this meat is a ‘source of omega-3’ under the EU health claims Regulation will be important if this is to have commercial legs.”
Ryegrass and lipid levels
Researchers on the project have also been exploring the amount of variation in healthy lipid content in perennial ryegrass in order to breed varieties with a more beneficial fatty acid profile – that would in turn help cattle to produce more nutritious beef, he said.
They have also been examining the interaction between the grasses and other feeding systems, the cows’ bacteria and the key processes (lipolysis and biohydrogenation) that impact the fatty acid composition of their meat, he said.
Finally, animal studies at the University of Nottingham will explore whether consuming beef rich in omega-3s can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, he added. “They will use a rodent model to start with, but ultimately, of course, we need to do human studies.”
Other partners in the wider ProSafeBeef project are exploring how altering the diet of beef cattle can impact shelf-life, colour, sensory attributes, antioxidant levels and levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), he said.