What Is Wagyu Beef? Unraveling the Taste of Luxury

Wagyu beef, derived from Japanese cattle breeds, has captivated food enthusiasts worldwide with its unmatched flavor and luxurious marbling. In this article, we delve into the origins of Wagyu beef, explore its unique characteristics, unravel the reasons behind its high price, and address common misconceptions.

Key takeaways:

What is Wagyu beef?

Wagyu means Japanese (Wa) cattle (gyu) and is a luxury food originating in Japan. Wagyu cattle have four Japanese breeds — Black, Brown, Shorthorn, and Polled.

Authentic Wagyu beef must be from one of the mentioned Japanese breeds and be born and bred entirely in Japan. Other countries, including Australia and the United States, are also producing similar breeds known as Japanese Black.

Wagyu has a higher fat content than British and other European breeds. The intramuscular fat deposition that creates marbling increases the texture and highly desirable taste of Wagyu beef.

Why is Wagyu beef expensive?

Wagyu beef is expensive even in Japan, where it is raised and bred. Wagyu beef is commonly consumed to celebrate special occasions. 10 oz raw wagyu beef can cost up to $500 nowadays. The meat is also getting more expensive for higher quality cuts and products.

Additionally, Wagyu beef demands specific rearing practices. For example, there are calf-production and fattening farmers. Calf-production farmers breed cows by artificial insemination. Fattening farmers are responsible for fattening the chosen calf. Furthermore, the cattle are fed a high-energy diet between 11–30 months to increase marbling.

Here are some of the other factors contributing to the high price of wagyu beef.

  • Small-scale farming. According to the Production, Marketing and Consumption Statistics Division (2015), on average, only 45 beef cattle are bred per farm.
  • Cattle rearing practices. As mentioned above, Wagyu manufacturers follow strict procedures to ensure proper feeding, rearing, hygiene, and handling for animal welfare.
  • Limited supply and high demand. Wagyu production has always been low, but it's also slowly decreasing — increasing the demand for the highly-prized beef.
  • Special areas of production. Wagyu is only bred in Japan, and its production is more valued in some areas, including Miyazaki, Kagoshima, and Hokkaido prefectures, due to ideal breeding conditions.
  • Quality grading systems. Uniformity standards guarantee the quality of Wagyu beef. Cuts of wagyu beef are categorized according to Yield Grade and Grade (indices to assess the quality of wagyu beef). The grader evaluates many factors, including meat color, brightness, firmness and texture, fat color, quality, and marbling.

What makes Wagyu beef unique?

Japanese people commonly consume Wagyu beef to celebrate special occasions. However, Wagyu beef is a luxury food worldwide. Let's learn what makes Wagyu beef so special.

Nutrient content of Wagyu beef

The incredible marbling does add to Wagyu's overall fat composition. However, marbling is one of the primary indicators of Wagyu beef's quality. It's the intramuscular fat (fat stored in muscle tissue) that creates a finely marbled cut. Additionally, this high intramuscular fat content makes the meat juicier and more tender.

Wagyu breeders work hard to strike the perfect balance between meat and fat. That's because excessive marbling decreases the protein content and umami flavor profile. Breeders strive for as much as 36% intramuscular fat content to achieve the highest quality beef.

Wagyu also has a higher oleic acid (fatty acid) composition than other breeds. High oleic acid composition lowers the fat’s melting point, which softens the texture making the beef more palatable.

Wagyu beef has superb protein composition — 18g in a 4oz portion. Furthermore, 20 amino acids make up protein, but the human body can not produce nine; thus, we must get those from food. These essential amino acids determine the bioavailability of the protein. For instance, the higher the bioavailability, the higher the nutrient absorption. Japanese Black beef has all essential amino acids and about 97% protein absorption ratio.

Preparing and considerations for Wagyu beef

Cooking methods influence Wagyu's final product. Therefore, various cooking methods also affect the beef's sensory perception.

In a study, researchers investigated the effects of different cooking methods on Wagyu beef’s sensory perception. In the experiment, 24 and 28-month-old Japanese Black cattle were grilled or boiled to prepare samples.

The results showed that grilling (yakiniku) heightened texture and fat-related sensory characteristics, including tenderness, softness, juiciness, dryness, smoothness, and fat melting. While boiling (shabu-shabu) featured flavor-related sensory characteristics, including umami and sweet tastes.

Cattle age also affected Wagyu's taste. For example, beef from 24-month-old cattle resulted in a drier finished product than from 28-month-old cattle.

The beef's smell also changed depending on the cooking temperature. Wagyu beef had a sweet aroma when boiled at 80°C. The sweet aroma was more prominent from boiled rather than grilled samples. Conversely, a buttery odor was prominent in grilled samples.

Common concerns about Wagyu beef

Many consumers are concerned about sustainability and animal welfare because Japanese Black cattle are forced to live in small pens and fed high-concentrate extreme diets.

According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), fattening farms have a cruel structure in which cattle are force-fed and kept indoors to reduce movement to increase fat gain. However, consumers can look for verified and certified grass-fed Wagyu products that have earned a recognized animal welfare standard.

For the consumers who seek out the symphonious flavor profile of Wagyu, all other beef is second best. However, what is a unique, mouth-watering dining experience for some, raises concerns about animal cruelty for others. Therefore, seek professional advice to address concerns about food security, sustainability, and animal welfare to make informed choices about Wagyu beef consumption.

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