Palatability and Nutrient Composition of Grass-Finished Bison

M. J. Marchello
North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND

The ultimate test of the value of meat is its degree of consumer acceptability.  Sensory characteristics such a flavor, tenderness, and juiciness influence what meat we eat.  Historically, bison meat sustained the health of many societies, but in modern day markets we must provide proof of its nutritional qualities and palatability.

Grass-finished animals enter a different niche market than grain-finished animals.  In this study, comparisons were made between strip loins from 24 grass-finished animals on native pasture and 10 grain-finished animals that were obtained from three grassland herds belonging to the Nature Conservancy.  Tall Grass Prairie (Oklahoma), Niobrara Valley (Nebraska), and Ordway Prairie (South Dakota) preserves were the selected sites, representing tallgrass and mixed prairie native pastures.  A semi-trained taste panel compared the grass and grain-fed strip loins for flavor, tenderness, juiciness, and overall acceptability.  The panelists consistently preferred the grain-finished steaks over the grass-finished steaks.  Furthermore, the panelists rated the grain-finished steaks equivalent to beef steaks that were used as a negative control.  Although the animals were of similar genetic make-up, the grain-finished bison were younger, being only 22 months old, while the grass-finished bison averaged 32 month of age.

No differences were observed in the nutrient content among the four cuts (ribeye, top sirloin, top round, and shoulder clod) from the grain-finished animals, which represent the four major areas of the carcass; however, there were differences among the cuts of the grass-finished bison.  Furthermore, when the cuts were averaged and compared across treatments, the grain-finished bison had more protein (21.9 vs. 21.3%), more fat (1.4 vs. 0.9%), and more calories (140 vs. 131) than the grass-finished bison.  No differences were observed in total mineral content or cholesterol.  The fatty acid profile varied among the cuts and across treatments.  Grain-finished bison had less saturated fat (43 vs. 49%), and more mono-unsaturated fat (40 vs. 36%) than grass-finished bison with no differences observed in polyunsaturated fatty acids.   These differences in fatty acids may have an effect on the palatability of the meat as perceived  by the consumer.

Our research shows that bison meat is a highly nutrient dense food, containing many nutrients in amounts essential to human life and health.  Bison meat is high in protein, low in fat and sodium.  It is an excellent source of phosphorus, zinc, and selenium, as well as a good source of iron, comparing well with other meats such as beef, pork, lamb, and poultry. 

NDSU Vice President,
Dean and Director for Agricultural Affairs
NDSU Extension Service ND Agricultural
Experiment Station
NDSU College of Agriculture NDSU College of Human Development and Education