This is the 25th anniversary of one of the most important and significant contributions that Dr. H. Russell Cross and I may have ever made to the livestock and meat industries: the development of the “Window of Acceptability.” This window not only helped demonstrate the amount of fat in meat necessary for tenderness and flavor, but also helped established upper limits so that current-day dietary guidelines for fat intake could be met.
The “Window of Acceptability” was part of a presentation we made on “The Role of Fat in the Palatability of Beef, Pork, and Lamb” (Savell and Cross, 1988) to the Committee on Technological Options to Improve the Nutritional Attributes of Animal Products of the Board on Agriculture of the National Research Council. The diet/health debate had been going on for over 10 years at the point of our invitation, and fat in meat had been demonized quite heavily as the source of most health problems faced by humans at that time. This is the first paragraph of the Executive Summary of “Designing Foods: Animal Product Options in the Marketplace,” the committee’s final report, which gives a sense of the mood at the time:
“This century has witnessed tremendous advances in all fields of human endeavor, particularly the sciences. Our daily lives have been enriched, our standard of living improved, and the average life span prolonged. This report examines the changing interface between agriculture and human health—two fields that have been progressing geometrically during this century—and the role of animal products in the diet. Animal products contribute more than a third of the calories and between a third and all of the major nutrients in the food supply. They also contribute more than half of the total fat, three-fourths of the saturated fatty acids, and all of the cholesterol, food components that may adversely affect an individual’s health.”
One question that the committee had was why was any fat needed in animal products. When the answer came back from some members of the committee that some fat was necessary for palatability, this question then was how much. This is where Cross and I were asked to address this question.
We began an exhaustive review of meat palatability research to see what the literature had to say regarding fat and palatability. The research was very clear: if fat in meat was below about 3% on a chemical basis, tenderness, juiciness, and flavor ratings would be quite low. Once fat was above 3%, palatability ratings increased significantly and continued to do so as the percentage fat increased. We had the answer for at least the minimum amount of fat necessary for taste and that was 3%.
Once we established the minimum fat necessary for taste, we still felt that there was another question that we must address and that was how much fat in meat was too much. Although this was not part of our initial charge from the committee, Cross and I decided to tackle this. One weekend morning, we met in Cross’s office and went to the writing board to kick around different ideas. Using American Heart Association guidelines for no more than 30% of calories from fat and only 1/4 of the fat calories available for meat and based on a diet of 2,000 calories per day and two four-ounce portions of meat on an uncooked basis, we finally arrived at an upward number of 7.3% as the maximum fat that meat could contain and still comply with the American Heart Association guidelines. At this moment, we realized that we now had a “window” with both a low range and high range. We now felt that we had a more complete answer to the committee: how much fat was needed for taste, but how much was not too much for diet/health concerns. From a beef standpoint, this meant that beef from the lower end of Select to the upper part of Choice grades would meet the requirements of the “Window of Acceptability.”
The “Window of Acceptability” has been published in various textbooks, theses and dissertations, scientific journal articles, and marketing materials. I have been in a number of national and international meetings where speakers have mentioned the “Window of Acceptability” and I have felt that our work has made an impact on our understanding of the important role of fat in meat. It hardly seems that it has been 25 years since this work was done, but it is very satisfying that the “Window of Acceptability” is as important today as it was then.
In the 21st Century, it seems that fat in foods is all the rage. The popularity of various cooking shows, magazines, and blogs that celebrate the great taste of foods and use real cream and butter in recipes demonstrate that people are searching for real experiences with real food. It may be that the “Window of Acceptability” helped pave the way to show that fat in meat was and is an important part of palatability and a necessary component of our diets.
Savell, J. W., and H. R. Cross. 1988. The role of fat in the palatability of beef, pork, and lamb. Designing Foods: Animal Product Options in the Marketplace. National Academy Press, Washington, DC. p. 345.