Today we’re going to talk about transglutaminase. It’s an enzymatic glue with which you can stick two proteins together. Doctors and biologists call it Factor VIII, and it is one of the many amino acids involved in one of my favorite biological events, the clotting cascade. When you cut yourself shaving, all sorts of cellular firemen leap into action to staunch the bloodletting, and Factor VIII is one of them.
Fortunately or unfortunately, enterprising food entrepreneurs figured out that you can also use transglutaminase to glue various parts of food products together. The two examples that come up most frequently on Google are imitation crab meat and fish balls. Neither of which is high on my list of weeknight supper dishes. In any event, when used by these enterprising entrepreneurs, the enzyme is called “meat glue.”
Meat glue has been around since prehistoric times, of course, but only in the late 20th century did humans start using it to glue their meat-based, food-like products together. The chef that figured it out owned a restaurant named The Fat Duck. He is also credited with inventing snail porridge and bacon-and-egg ice cream. He’s British.
But you can’t just glue together bits of meat willy-nilly. There are rules, guidelines, best practices, helpful hints. I’m told that gluing like pieces of meat (duck to duck, for example) is preferable to gluing different types of meat together, such as duck and cod. The cod will be burnt to a crisp before your duck is cooked enough to eat safely. Having said that, apparently gluing duck skin to the outside of a cod fillet is a swell idea and gives your flaky, steamy cod a nice crispy crunch. If you glue meat bits to the inside of a steak to plump it up a little, make sure the meat you are gluing into the middle isn’t contaminated with E. coli or botulism. If you glue scallops into your chicken for an extra moist Thanksgiving chicken pot pie, make sure you tell that relative who is allergic to shellfish.
You’re probably thinking, “This can’t possibly be for real, can it?” But it is for real, and it’s not even a furtive practice. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved meat glue as Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) for processed meat and seafood in 1998. In 1999, the FDA approved meat glue as GRAS for dairy products and meat substitutes. (“Hey ma! There’s meat glue in my fake meat hot dogs!”) Since then, the FDA has approved meat glue for use in pasta, bread, pastries, pizza dough, ready-to-eat cereals, burritos, tacos, and any number of nonmeat consumer foods.
If all this makes you kind of queasy, you are not alone. California State Senator Ted Lieu wants manufacturers to label meats that have been glued together and to indicate the various types of animals that have been glued into one product. Unfortunately, the FDA and USDA already do require manufacturers to tell consumers that meat glue is in their food. But don’t look for the words “meat glue” on the package. That would be too easy. No, what you’ll see instead on the ingredients list is “TG enzyme,” “TGP enzyme,” or simply “enzyme.” For raw meat, you will see the words “formed” or “reformed.” As in “reformed chicken breast.” Not misshapen chicken breasts or fallen chicken breasts. The mind reels.
Yet another reason to cook at home.
This article first appeared in the May 23, 2012, edition of the AssurX blog.