A succulent slice of foie gras. That perfect round shape was produced with an enzyme called transglutaminase – meat glue.
The more I learn about meat glue, the more cheated I feel. Since there’s no law ensuring that I be informed, I could be absorbing blood-clotting enzyme without suspecting it. Transglutaminase is said to be used in meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, pasta, and bread. A post on the Cooking Issues blog, which we quoted in our previous post about meat glue, seems to be the main information resource for the layman. Labels certainly aren’t telling.
Safety isn’t uppermost in consumer’s minds. The outrage which lead to meat glue being banned in the E.U. focused on paying premium prices for inferior foods. Yet how much of the blood-clotting enzyme gets into the bloodstream through the skin – a concern for food workers – or through the mucous membranes when we put glued food in our mouths? Nobody knows.
Meat glue is applied to all kinds of foods, not only meat, poultry and fish. It’s an agent appreciated by the dairy industry because it thickens yogurt and cheese at less cost. According to a study published by the Entrepreneur blog,
” (Meat glue) …can also help in saving ingredient costs by reducing the amount of protein required to create a desirable texture, firmness and stability of yogurt.”
In other words, meat glue allows the manufacturer to economize at the expense of the consumer, who gets less protein in his yogurt but enjoys the mouthfeel of the real thing.
To get a better idea of how meat glue works, I watched a YouTube video of a lecture and demonstrations given by chef Wylie Dufresne, a leader in molecular gastronomy, owner and chef of the prestigious WD-50 restaurant in New York, and winner of culinary prizes. The lecture was given at the Harvard School of Engineering and applied sciences and sponsored by big names like Mars, Whole Foods, the Jose Andres Food Group, and Le Creuset.
A chill went through me as I watched the hour-long video. I saw, with rising disgust, a pale slab of chicken stock that flapped in Dufresne’s hand as if made of rubber. The audience, all sciences students, watched in rapt fascination. Nobody seemed to be thinking how unnatural it is to eat synthetically transformed food.
True, the powder allows chefs to leap to undreamed-of culinary heights. Beef gnocchi! Peanut butter pasta! Campari-flavored tofu! To show how strongly meat glue bonds foods together, chef Dufresne smilingly bounced a stick of glued carrots and celery off the demonstration table, saying, “It’s bullet-proof!”
If you have the time, it’s worth watching the lecture to judge for yourself:
In no way do I want to make adepts of molecular gastronomy to be evil people. Chef Dufresne shows an intense intellectual curiosity and sheer joy in food. He himself says that he’s eaten more meat glue than most people ever will – and doesn’t seem any the worse for it.
But doubts linger. What the long-term effects of meat glue are, nobody can say. Another concern is how glued meat is often poached in its plastic wrap. I wonder how much of petrochemicals get cooked into that glued food. Double whammy?
Here is a call for transparency in labeling from the Food Technology blog, India:
“Invariably industry justifies use of these so called meat glues because they are used only during processing and resist declaring it in the label obviously maintaining that it is not a part of the formulation of the product. While technically they are correct, the fact still remains that the so called processing aid stays right there in the final product which certainly requires declaration for the information of the consumer.”
For what the information may be worth, Ajinomoto, the major manufacturer of meat glue, is also the world’s biggest producer of MSG.
It’s very difficult to tell if the food on your plate has been glued. Most people can’t taste transglutaminase. The seams that join disparate pieces of flesh are hardly visible. And a nice, smooth puree could be just that, or a slurry of meat or vegetables made smoother with gelatin and our friend, meat glue.
Suspect perfectly round slices of meat or fish in restaurants and perfectly round logs of beef in the supermarket. Novelty foods, like shrimp noodles or quinoa chips, are surely synthetically bound. In any case, ask the restauranteur or the butcher, and hope they give you an honest answer.
Bottom line: stay away from processed foods. Cook more at home.
More on food safety on Green Prophet:
- Meat Glue: The Food Industry’s Dirty Secret
- The Meat You Eat May Not Be What You Think
- Bactochem Barcodes Your Organic Meat
Photo from Food Nouveau Blog.