If pork chops are on the menu this grilling season, new research from University of Illinois meat scientists suggests that pork enthusiasts can improve taste, juiciness and tenderness by cooking chops to the new U.S. Department of Agriculture standard of 145°F.
"Pork cooked to 145 degrees is absolutely safe, and our results show that everyday consumers strongly prefer pork chops cooked to 145 over the old standard of 160 degrees," said Dustin Boler, associate professor in the University of Illinois department of animal sciences and co-author of a new study published in the Journal of Animal Science.
Boler and his research team had already demonstrated that trained taste-testers prefer pork chops cooked to 145°F, but they wanted to try it out with the average consumer. Like the trained taste-testers, average consumers were asked to rate the juiciness, tenderness, flavor and overall acceptability of pork cooked to 145, 160, and 180°F.
"The results were what we expected: Consumers rated juiciness, tenderness and flavor much higher in pork chops cooked to 145°F than the other temperatures. These were the first data in consumers that conclusively supported what we knew from our own experience," graduate student researcher and lead study author Lauren Honegger said.
The research team was able to rule out other confounding factors as well. Consumers tasted two sets of pork chops: one that varied in pH, and the other that varied in the degree of color and marbling.
Boler explained that meat scientists historically put a lot of stock in pH to predict the eating experience. A higher pH equates to greater water-holding capacity in the muscle, which influences juiciness in the final product on the plate. However, he said, the importance of pH was based on pork cooked to the old temperature standard of 160°F.
Boler wanted to find out if pH is still as important in the context of today's cooking standard. The answer? Not really. Consumers still rated chops cooked to 145°F as tastier, juicier and more tender than chops cooked to 160°F, regardless of pH.
"It's not that pH doesn't matter; it's that when we do all of the other things to a pig that appropriately puts pork in a package -- when we humanely slaughter that animal, when we appropriately chill that carcass, when we treat those meat products with proper food safety and preparation techniques -- then pH doesn't matter," Boler explained. "In other words, when we prepare the product properly, pH matters less when we cook it to 145°F."
Co-author Anna Dilger, associate professor in the department of animal sciences, said the story was the same with color and marbling.
"We think darker color and more marbling should lead to a better-tasting pork chop, but that's not what consumers told us. They gave the highest ratings to pork chops cooked to 145°F, regardless of color and marbling," she said.
It turns out, based on other research, that color and marbling matter a lot when consumers are choosing which pork chop to purchase, but the consumer panel confirmed that those qualities don't factor into the eating experience when the chop is cooked to the new standard.
Boler said the take-home message for grill-masters is: "Get a meat thermometer, cook your pork to 145°F and it'll be great."
Authors of the article, "Final Internal Cooking Temperature of Pork Chops Influenced Consumer Eating Experience More Than Visual Color & Marbling or Ultimate pH," included Lauren Honegger, Elaine Richardson, Emily Schunke, Dilger and Boler, all from the department of animal sciences in the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences.