In a taste-test conducted among nearly 100 children at an elementary school in Portland, Ore., the results were clear. About half the children preferred grain-fed beef. And about half of them preferred grass-fed.

"It was almost exactly equal. It couldn’t have been any closer," Ann Colonna, a faculty research assistant and manager of the Sensory and Consumer Program at Oregon State University, told "But we established that there is a taste difference. The results are pretty strong."

Colonna said the Portland public school district had been encouraged by some parents to serve only grass-fed beef in the district’s school-lunch program. But since grass-fed beef is more expensive than commodity grain-fed beef, the district wanted to know if children could tell the difference.

Last fall, she asked 96 students at a school named Clark K-8 @ Binnsmead in southeast Portland to taste three similar-looking hamburger patties and identify the one that was different. In some cases, two patties came from grass-fed beef and the third was from grain-fed cattle. In other instances, it was the other way around. Seventy-three of the students correctly identified the patty that was different. Colonna then asked 91 students at a different school in southeast Portland, to taste two hamburger patties made from the two types of beef served in the prior taste test. The students were not told that one was made from grass-fed cattle and the other was from grain-fed animals. Each student received a quarter of a patty in a wheat bun served on a paper plate with the number 372, denoting the grain-fed beef, and a similar-looking serving on another plate with the number 681, the code for the grass-fed meat. When the preference votes were tallied, 45 students preferred the grass-fed while 46 liked the grain-fed best.

"I think that, frankly, they preferred what they’re used to," the OSU researcher told "Some of these kids are getting grass-fed beef at home, so that’s what they like."

It’s far too soon, she added, to extrapolate the results to larger populations of adult consumers. "This was about 100 kids in a specific age group in a specific school in Portland, Oregon," noted Colonna, who said she buys the beef for her own family at local farmer’s markets. "I’d say there’s a lot more research that needs to be done."

But she’s leaving that to someone else. OSU’s Sensory and Consumer Product program conducts taste and preference research for a variety of private and public clients. Her next project, she said, will also be with the Portland public school district. "It’ll be on macaroni and cheese. Kids like it – but how much?"