Range of mean values (or mean value when only one study available) of proximate composition and energy content (per 100 g) of game meat from wild species hunted in Europe.
A discussion about the nutritional composition of game meat, with specific focus on wild species harvested in Central and Mediterranean European countries has been conducted. Given the wide range of species, and the climate and vegetation differences among the harvesting areas, game meat shows heterogeneous characteristics and chemical composition, the latter being also affected by sex, age, body condition, physiological and sexual status, and hunting period. However, there are similarities which make it clearly distinguishable from livestock meat. When considering the most consumed species (red and fallow deer, wild boar, hare and wild rabbit), their meat has low fat content (<3 g/100 g for large and <4 g/100 g for small wild game species), high protein content (20–26 g/100 g) and low energy content (90–113 kcal/100 g). Wild game meat has a healthier fatty-acids profile compared to other meats, showing a higher proportion of PUFA, especially n-3, and consequently more favorable PUFA/SAF ratio. Wild ruminants’ meat shows a favorable n-6/n-3 ratio (lower or close to 4). It has a high content of K, followed by P and micro-minerals such as Zn and Fe, together with B-group vitamins and vitamin E. Game meat from wild species harvested in Europe can diversify the market being an alternative to others red meats owing to its nutritional quality and organoleptic characteristics.
- game meat
- chemical composition
- fatty acid profile
During the last decades game meat demand has increased in Europe, mainly because consumers perceive this meat as “natural and sustainable”. Animals are free range, fed mainly with natural food (i.e. pasture) and their meat is free from hormones, antibiotics and other products. Meat from wild game species, meets animal welfare ethical standards, and the rearing of the animals in the wild has a lower or null impact on the ecosystems when compared to farmed species [1, 2, 3]. Therefore, consumers perceive this meat differently from traditional meat derived from domestic species, being a seasonal product that is available in fresh during the colder seasons , but also consumed in other seasons after being frozen or as cured meat, including specialities such as
However, game meat consumption is still very low in Europe, as only 2–4% of the population consumes this type of meat regularly . This can be explained by its high price, seasonal availability, the lack of habit of using recipes with game meat among consumers not related with hunting, and even safety concerns . As pointed by a recent study , the lack of knowledge on hunting may hamper game meat consumption, as hunters and their relatives show higher rates of consumption compared to people not familiarized with this activity . Thus, when aiming to increase the intake of game meat and its derived products, information should be provided to sellers and consumers about the role of hunting on wildlife conservation and rural economy, but also on the nutritional quality of game meat and its possible inclusion in a balanced and healthy diet. In this way, the European Union (EU) is promoting the consumption of game meat in some countries through the program “European wild meat, nature at its purest” . In France, about half of the game meat producers promote the “French game meat brand”, with a strong promotion campaign targeting mainly chefs and consumers, highlighting the meat quality and its gastronomic potential . In Spain, the National Association of Game Meat Producers (ASICCAZA) is conducting a programme to increase the game meat profile among consumers .
Meat from game species can be produced from farmed or wild animals. In some countries such as New Zealand, Australia, China and Canada, meat from farmed game is considered as an important meat subsector, and the rearing of farmed game is also growing in European countries. However, hunting of wild game remains as an important activity in Europe, including ungulates, lagomorphs and birds, being this the case of Spain, where approximately 20,000 tons are produced each year, with an estimated value of 45 million € .
Regulation (EC) No 853/2004 considered wild game meat as meat obtained from wild birds, ungulates and lagomorphs, as well as other land mammals that are hunted for human consumption, including animals living in enclosed territory under conditions of freedom similar to those of wild game. Among the most hunted species in Europe are wild ungulates, including red deer (
2. Factors affecting chemical composition and characteristics of wild game meat
As game meat is produced from different groups of species (birds and mammals), and from different species within the same taxonomic category, there are considerable differences on quality attributes, including physicochemical and sensorial characteristics, together with microbiology, making game meat a heterogeneous product. In addition, quality attributes can be difficult to standardize and control since game meat from species hunted in the wild is affected by several
2.1 Ante-mortem factors
In Europe, hunting is practised all over the continent; hence a same species can be harvested in different environmental conditions, which implies different climate and habitat resulting in differences on types of food and its availability. However, for the majority of game species, hunting periods are extended from late summer to early spring (the coldest period of the year), and in all cases out of the breeding season. Hunting targets adults and juveniles (the latter in small game species), both males and females, which may have eaten natural or supplemented food depending on the location, as in many parts of Europe (especially the Mediterranean basin), there are extended periods of drought.
The different types of hunting may affect to meat quality. For example, driven hunting using dogs induce high levels of stress compared to stalking, in which the animals are often shot while being motionless. Other factors, such as hunting at day or night, with a rifle or a bow, may affect meat quality through different stress levels . High stress levels before the animal being shot/captured, cause a higher consumption of muscle glycogen before the death of the animal, resulting in less
After the death of the animal, the process to obtain meat in the field and the characteristics of the cutting plant varies depending on the location, as not all European countries have standard operating procedures. In fact, there are significant differences among countries in dressing the meat, the period of time from death to meat refrigeration, refrigeration temperatures, the type of vehicles used to transport the meat to the cutting plant/slaughterhouse, the maturation process which allows reaching the desired texture and flavor, and also the packing and storing system. All these factors affect the physicochemical, microbiological and sensory quality of game meat.
With regard to small game, after being shot, animals are usually kept unskinned and uneviscerated, and are hung in a cool, dry place until transportation to a game dealer or cutting plant. However, the majority of small game is generally kept by the hunters for personal consumption, and only a small proportion is sold.
In large game species, the evisceration is carried out by the hunter or the staff of the hunting ground. The interval from death to evisceration varies and little attention is paid to the environmental conditions in which hunting takes place, which may seriously undermine meat quality. The interval and the prevailing conditions between hunting and transport of the eviscerated carcass (previously approved by a veterinary inspection), to the cutting plant in refrigerated trucks also varies considerably. Finally, cutting plant managers often overlook the optimum conditions for carcass aging for a given species, which currently takes place over a wide range of temperatures and times, using different carcass ripening methods (mainly skinned
The implementation of standardized procedures in the field and cutting plant, are needed to ensure safety, quality and traceability of game meat.
3. Nutritional composition of wild game meat
The macronutrients, micronutrients, cholesterol content and fatty acid profile for the meat from the most important hunted species in Central and Mediterranean European countries are described below. Existing literature from areas where hunting is very popular has been reviewed. Those areas are located at the countries: Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greek, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Germany, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic and Republic of Lithuania. Only studies dealing with wild game (no farmed) have been cited, including animals harvested from late summer to spring, adults and juveniles, males and females.
3.1 Proximate composition
In Table 1, the proximate composition and energy content of meat from large wild game species is shown: wild red deer (
[17, 18, 19, 20, 21]
[22, 23, 24]
[12, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32]
[33, 34, 35, 36]
3.1.1 Large wild game
The most studied part of the carcass of red deer and fallow deer is the loin, both the whole
In the wild, fat content is mostly influenced by seasonal variations, nutritional and sexual status, and available vegetation. Deer species, especially those living in the wild, are known to have seasonal body condition changes, which allows speculation about seasonal variation of meat composition. Usually, body condition is at its highest at the beginning of winter and at its lowest at the beginning of spring , and consequently the fat content is higher in winter compared to autumn and summer [22, 41]. But this variation is influenced by the species, winter severity and population density [28, 29]. In addition, in several deer species a decrease in body weight has been recorded for adult males during the rutting season , while for adult females the recovery of body condition during summer may be limited by the cost of lactation . The meat energetic value (calculated per 100 g) ranges from 90 to 101 kcal in red deer, and 91.5–96 kcal in fallow deer. These values are lower than beef, pork, lamb or poultry meat, whose energetic value range from 114 to 231 kcal/100 g of muscle tissue  owing to the higher fat content of these meats. Ash content is very similar for both deer species and in all muscles (range of mean values from 1 to 1.3%).
When comparing meat from wild and farmed deer, there are contradictory results; higher fat content has been found in wild fallow deer compared to farmed, and similar or slightly higher values have been found in farmed red deer compared to wild ones .
The wild boar is a generalist omnivore, which is able to eat a wide range of food items, hence its diet varies according to resources available. It has a broad geographic distribution that include arid zones (semi deserts), wetlands, high mountain environments, forest and farmland ecosystems , which ultimately affect to the meat chemical composition. The proximate composition of loin (
When comparing the macronutrients content of wild boar meat to pork, the main difference is the lower fat and higher protein content of wild boar meat . Thus, the mean values in pork loin are 4.6% for intramuscular fat and 21.4% for protein content [12, 25, 26, 34, 42, 43]. One study has reported that the mean fat content of wild boar meat was 5.3%, being similar to pork .
3.1.2 Small game
Wild rabbit and hares are herbivorous consuming a great variety of plants, including herbs, grains, and fruits. The type and abundance of these plants vary depending on the season and from one area to another, which may cause large variation in the composition of their meat . There are very few data available regarding the nutritional composition of wild hare and rabbit in Europe; in fact, only one study has been found investigating wild rabbit meat harvested in Spain . The proximate composition has been evaluated in different pieces such as loin (
Considering the variability for each of the parameters mentioned above, it is clear that the available food where animals are harvested has a significant influence on meat composition. On the other hand, some studies have found that several factors influence protein and fat content, and consequently energetic value, the most important being: (i) sex, as meat from females has a higher fat content and lower protein content [45, 46]; (ii) the hunting period, with higher fat and protein content in winter compared to spring ; (iii) muscle type, with a higher fat content in the legs compared to the loin [37, 46].
Several studies have compared meat from hares and domestic rabbit [45, 48], showing that domestic rabbit have a higher fat content (2.6–3.0%) and a lower protein value (21.5–22.2%). When the same diet is provided to farmed brown hares and domestic rabbits, a higher protein content is found in hare meat .
Although meat from wild rabbit and hare provides a balanced content of macronutrient, these meats are not as popular as the consumption of other domestic meats, because of their dark red color, characteristic strong flavor, compact texture and dryness .
No complete studies have been found on the chemical composition of game birds, so more research is needed for these species.
In summary, the main characteristics of proximate composition of game meat from wild species are: low fat content and caloric value, together with high protein content, which may contribute to a healthy diet and a good “marketing strategy” .
3.2 Fatty acids composition
It is widely accepted that both the amount and the structure of fatty acids (FA) play a major role in human health. Moreover, the FA composition is more relevant than fat content for human nutrition. There are four inter-related factors that have important health implications: (i) the total fat content; (ii) the distribution of specific FA; (iii) the ratio of polyunsaturated fatty acids and saturated fatty acids (PUFA/SFA); (iv) the
According to the health authorities it is recommended to decrease the intake of fat, SFA,
As said before, game meat is lean, with a low content of intramuscular lipids, which are primarily composed of triglycerides (neutral lipids) and phospholipids (polar lipids) with polar lipids being the less saturated. The intramuscular fat composition is related to the fat amount, because a higher fat content results on changes in FA, with a higher content of neutral lipids which tend to be more saturated .
In Table 2 a review of the range of mean values found in the available literature for the total content of SFA, MFA, PUFA,
[17, 19, 59]
[26, 42, 43, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64]
3.2.1 Large wild game
The range of mean values for the total amount of FA and their ratios found in wild game meat harvested in Europe are quite wide. In general, in wild red deer meat the most important are SFA, closely followed by PUFA, whereas fallow deer shows a higher amount of SFA followed by MUFA. However, only one study is available for fallow deer  harvested in Poland hence there is lack of studies. Considering all studies conducted on wild red deer, the
Regarding to the FA in large game, all studies show that the most abundant are palmitic (C16:0), stearic (C18:0) and oleic (C18:1), as shown for domestic animals . In general, game species contain high amounts of the long chained (C > 20) unsaturated fatty acids , which are healthful . It is important to highlight the high amounts of arachidonic acid (C20:4
In wild red and fallow deer, the FA composition is mainly influenced by the food composition despite the biohydrogenation of PUFA in the rumen. The intake of pasture produces a more favorable
Together with food, other factors may affect the FA profile as age, sex, area of harvesting, among others . For example, meat from stags show a higher PUFA concentration than hinds in both red deer and fallow deer [58, 59, 75], and consequently the PUFA/SFA ratio is higher in the stags’ meat. Regarding to the effect of age, younger animals show a higher PUFA content than older ones , probably due to higher intramuscular fat amounts in older animals and different relative contents of triacylglycerol and phospholipid fractions in muscle lipids. Meat from older animals shows higher n-6/n-3 ratio (> 4.0) , hence less healthy.
The comparison of meat from wild deer with other red meats from domestic animals, reveals a high content of PUFA, being deer meat particularly rich in C18:2
In contrast to ruminants, double bonds of FA are not hydrogenated during digestion in wild boar. Similarly to other monogastric animals, the FA composition of wild boar’s meat is strongly related to diet , as the FA profile varies depending on whether the animals eat only natural resources or are supplemented, the latter a quite widespread practice conducted by managers during harsh winter periods. In the wild, wild boars eat a great variety of indigenous plants, including grain, seeds, roots, fruits, insects, earthworms, slugs and also small mammals and carrion, though the bulk of food consumed consists of plant material . Higher amounts of SFA have been found in wild boars supplemented with feed compared to those not supplemented , in which a higher content of
Together with the diet, it has been suggested that the hunting period has a strong influence on the FA profile. In autumn (October–November), research has found higher proportions of PUFA, lower of MUFA, more favorable values of PUFA/SFA ratio and less favorable
With regard to the effect of age, conflicting results have been found, which could be attributed to the differences on age classes used among studies [62, 65]. Only small differences were detected for sex [62, 64], referring a higher total proportion of SFA in males compared to females . A further influence has been found in the carcass weight, hence SFA increased with weight and PUFA proportion increased with decreased carcass weight .
3.2.2 Small game
The FA profile of hares and rabbits is slightly different than the one shown by wild deer and wild boars, owing to the higher amount of C20:4
The FA composition is influenced by seasonal and territorial variations on vegetation. So, an optimal FA profile has been shown particularly during early spring, when fresh spontaneous vegetation is available, which increases the amount of PUFA, particularly
Higher amounts of C18:2, C18:3
3.2.3 Fatty acid profile and organoleptic characteristics
The FA profile not only has implications for human health, but also on meat quality, such as texture, shelf life, flavor and odor, which all affect sensory properties of deer meat . Due to the different melting points, individual FA have important but diverse effects on the firmness or softness of the fat and meat. The effect of FA on meat flavor is due to the production of volatile lipid oxidation products during heat treatment or while the production of cured meat, especially unsaturated FA . Natural grazing is a source of PUFA and it is considered as an important contributor for the development of “wild“, “gamey “and “grassy” flavor in meat [72, 84, 85]. However, a high content of PUFA may negatively affect the oxidation stability and other technological parameters of meat and its products .
Cholesterol is an essential element for body function, as it is part of the cell membrane structure and it is necessary for the sexual and adrenal hormone production. Around two thirds of cholesterol are synthesized in the liver and the remaining proportion is taken from the diet, and the cholesterol level is self-controlled. Higher serum cholesterol levels increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, though the intake reduction of food rich in cholesterol as a way to reduce this problem, has been questioned .
Available literature about wile game meat, shows cholesterol content only in wild red deer and wild boar, specifically in
The cholesterol amount in red deer meat has been compared to beef using the same technique at the same laboratory, finding that the amount found in deer is at the same level of the one found in beef loin and legs . Depending on the muscle, the values found in wild boar meat (20.9–56.9 mg/100 g) are lower or similar to the ones found in pork, which are close to 45.3–80.0 mg/100 g . Generally speaking, the amount of cholesterol in game meat are similar to the ones found in lamb, chicken, pork or beef meat . Contradictory results have been found when comparing the cholesterol amount between wild and farmed deer, with wild red deer showing lower values and wild fallow deer showing higher values compared to farmed deer .
Macro- and micro-minerals serve many functions in the human organism. They are the building material of bones, teeth, skin and hair and are fundamental components for metabolic processes, maintenance of acid–base equilibrium and regulation of water and electrolyte metabolism . In addition, minerals contained in meat, in comparison with those present in plants, are more easily absorbed and, therefore, more beneficial to the human organism .
Table 4 shows the concentrations of macro and micro-elements, found in loin (
[19– 21, 23]
[12, 23, 25, 92]
In general, game meat has higher amounts of micro-minerals than beef and pork, and such differences may be due to genetic background and environmental factors . Muscles of wild ruminants have shown higher content of P, but less K and Na than corresponding bovine muscles . In wild boar meat, higher content of Ca, P, Cu, Fe and Zn has been found than in pork, but lower content of Na and Mg, with conflicting results with regard to K [23, 92]. A 2-fold higher content of Fe have been found in wild boar .
Vitamins are essential elements for human nutrition as they control metabolic pathways of macronutrients, act in enzymatic reactions and take part in many physiological functions, with some vitamins having antioxidant properties .
Not many studies have dealt with the vitamin content of game meat, and available research focuses on vitamin E (tocopherols y tocotrienols) owing to the antioxidant properties which are key on the preservation of meat quality through the retardation of lipid oxidation and color loss. In Table 5 it is shown the concentrations of B-group vitamins and some fat-soluble vitamins: retinol and vitamin E homologs which are at high levels, α- and γ-tocopherols, in red deer and wild boar meat.
[12, 43, 60]
|B1 (thiamine, mg)||0.18|
|B2 (riboflavin, mg)||0.40|
|B3 (niacin, mg)||5.53|
|B6 (pyridoxine, mg)||0.14|
|B9 (folic acid, μg)||3.17|
|B12 (cyanocobalamine, μg)||5.87|
In red deer, only one study has been conducted in B-group vitamins from loin (
In wild boar meat concentrations of retinol and vitamin E homologs have been studied in
4. Nutrition and health claims in wild red deer meat
A recent study conducted by Soriano et al.  has shown the nutrition and health claims from wild red deer meat according to the Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006 and the amended Commission Regulation (EU) No 1047/2012. These claims can be used legally in labeling, presentation and advertising of this meat in the market. In that study the nutritional quality of loin (
Regarding to the nutrition claims, in all samples the contribution of proteins to the total energetic value was at least 73%, the fat content was lower than 2 g/100 g and Na content was lower than 0.12 g/100 g, so the claims “high protein”, “low fat” and “low sodium/salt” can be assumed. When looking at the minerals and vitamins contents, significant amounts of P, Fe, Cu, Zn, and vitamins B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin) and B12 (cyanocobalamin) were found, indicating that 100 g of deer loin provide at least 15% of the reference daily intake for adults of these micronutrients, so this meat can be labeled as a “source of P, Fe, Cu, riboflavin and niacin”. For Zn and vitamin B12 deer loin contains at least twice the value of source, so could be labeled as “high in Zn and vitamin B12”.
Together with the mentioned nutrition claims, permitted health claims listed in the Annex of the Commission Regulation (EU) No 432/2012, could be used for wild deer meat in relation to those minerals and vitamins found in significant amounts. Similarly, claims related with children’s development could also be made (Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006; Commission Regulation (EU) No 432/2012); these claims are based on the bioactivity and presence of certain components that must be found in significant amounts, such as Fe and protein, since deer loin complies as being a source of Fe and protein.
5. European wild game meat production and its challenges
Production of wild game meat as alternative to others red meats, offer both economic opportunities and nutritional benefits but is still a niche market to develop due to both low demand and supply limitations.
In Europe, hunting contributes only a small part to the overall meat supply, but represents a sustainable source of meat. Hunting is a legal activity and when managed properly, may contribute to wildlife conservation and rural economy . Most hunting practices fulfill animal welfare requirements, though guidelines for sustainable hunting should be promoted to minimize ethical concerns.
The way in which game meat is produced differs from that of farmed animals, and prompts taking specific measures along the food chain . Despite differences in game species,
On the other hand, the use of lead (Pb) ammunition is still widespread in many hunting modalities and it is well known that fragments of Pb can be found after impacting on the body of the animal, both in the place of impact and other nearby parts. A common practice is to eliminate the place of impact during carcass dressing. In addition, trading companies have metal detectors, which prevent the distribution of game meat with the presence of ammunition remains. However, wild animals inadvertently ingest Pb residues present at the soil and surface water in some areas, causing the Pb to be also present in their viscera. Consequently, there is a certain risk of exposure to lead in the population, mainly hunters and their families . In this sense, EFSA has studied the lead dietary exposure in the European population from meat and meat products , finding particularly high results for wild boar meat. However, food consumed in larger quantities, as grains and grain products, milk and dairy products, non-alcoholic beverages and vegetables and vegetable products, have the greatest impact on lead dietary exposure, not being this the case for wild game meat . No adverse effects from a single high intake of Pb have been reported, though chronic toxicity from repeated intakes has a toxic effect on the body, mainly on the central nervous system (particularly on the developing brain of young children and fetuses). On the other hand, inorganic Pb compounds have been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as probably carcinogenic to humans .
It is then clear that meat from wild game has several challenges that should be tackled to reduce detrimental effect on consumers, mainly those related to the type of ammunition used and some aspects related to handling
Generally speaking wild game meat from Central and Mediterranean European countries, compared to livestock meat shows: (i) a lower fat content (< 3 g/100 g for large and < 4 g/100 g for small wild game species), and therefore a lower energy content; (ii) a higher or similar protein content; (iii) a positive fatty-acids profile, showing a higher proportion of PUFA, especially