White meat or dark meat – is usually the question you’re asked when turkey is involved. But in this case, the focus is on pork chops.

A new University of Missouri study shows that consumers prefer darker pork products not only because they perceive those cuts to be more tender and juicy, but because they deliver those traits.

While it may seem that this research contradicts the pork industry’s famous slogan, Pork. The Other White Meat, that’s not necessarily the case.

“The original idea behind Pork. The Other White Meat campaign was to reposition pork as a white meat, stressing the positive attributes associated with white meat such as versatility, nutrition, convenience and flavor,” says Eric Berg, University of Missouri meat scientist.

In the University of Missouri study, researchers looked at pork’s meat science attributes and how those factors related to consumer acceptance.

“This research is important and helps us better understand our consumer,” says Becca Hendricks, strategic marketing manager for the National Pork Board. “But, it doesn’t have any marketing impact regarding Pork. The Other White Meat campaign. The campaign refers to the cooked product and illustrates to consumers pork’s nutritional parity with chicken. Today, our efforts focus more on the ‘Other’ portion of the slogan rather than the ‘White Meat’ portion.”

“Our objective was to determine if the light-reflectance measurements were related to pork tenderness,” says Jana Norman, University of Missouri graduate student. “Then we wanted to determine the acceptance of fresh pork chops prepared by consumers in their own homes.”

Researchers asked consumers in 47 Columbia, Mo., households that had two persons older than 18 years, to prepare, eat and compare specific center-cut boneless pork loins. The cuts  were divided into three color standards (light, intermediate and dark) established by NPB. (See color key.)

There were no pale, soft and exudative or dark firm and dry pork chops used in the study. All of the chops depicted the normal color variation found in a grocer’s meat case.

Using a nine-point scale, consumers rated the darker pork significantly more tender and juicy than normal-colored pork after cooking and tasting the various chops. Researchers’ measurements showed no real difference in pH, water-holding capacity and shear force, across each color category.

The dark chops had a greater cooking yield and higher end-point cooking temperature than the normal or lighter chops. This could be attributed to the high pH of the darker chops. A high muscle pH improves water-holding capacity and increases thermal conduction when cooked for a constant time instead of constant temperature.

Consumers chose their own cooking methods and seasonings. The most popular cooking method was grilling, but some participants chose to bake, fry or broil the chops. Cooking techniques may have influenced the overall liking and flavor, but tenderness and juiciness are more inherent to the product itself.

Following the in-home portion of the study, researchers set up a retail display containing pork chops from each color category to see what consumers would buy. “When given the opportunity, consumers chose the darker category most often,” says Carol Lorenzen, assistant food science professor.

Besides testing consumer preferences, researchers also used a trained, descriptive sensory panel of University of Missouri faculty and staff. The panel supported the previous findings – that darker color chops were preferred, and were found to be more tender and juicy.

The study reinforces that darker pork products are more tender and juicy than lighter pork products. It also begs the question – is the industry’s current promotional slogan adding to consumers’ selection confusion?

“It’s encouraging that these results show that people aren’t buying raw pork that looks like chicken,” contends Berg. “The chances of consumers buying reddish-pink chops have improved and their chances of having a bad eating experience have decreased.”