Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
25 May

Meat Glue: Separating Fact from Fiction

If you’re a fitness and nutrition nerd, you’re long past the grade school days of willingly eating glue, paste, and other pseudo-edible adhesives, but there’s a decent chance you’re still eating an entirely different kind of glue unknowingly. Maybe even on a regular basis. I’m talking about meat glue, also known as transglutaminase, which restaurants and food producers use to create “steaks” out of “glued-together” stew meat, add body to dairy products, make imitation crab, improve processed meat mouth feel, to name a few. A video exposing the “secret” of meat glue has been making the rounds of the various health circles, and more than a few readers have asked me about it. Here’s the video in question, taken from a recent Australian expose:

With that out of the way, what exactly is transglutaminase, and should you be worried about it?

Transglutaminase is an enzyme, produced either by bacterial cultivation (via fermentation of plant extracts) or from the coagulation factor in porcine and bovine blood, that bonds proteins together. Once it’s been cultivated or extracted, transglutaminase is dried into a powder that can be easily applied to a number of products, including

Reconstituted steaks, fillets, roasts, or cutlets – Meat glue is added to disparate chunks of meat (like cheap stew meat, chunks of chicken – any meat, really) and rubbed in. The chunks are compressed together and left to cool; after several hours, the meat pieces have formed insoluble bonds made of protein polymers. You can usually pull apart the “steak” to reveal the composite pieces, but take a quick glance and you’d never know it was cheap stew meat glued together. To most consumers, the resultant reconstituted “steak” is indistinguishable from a real slab of meat once it’s cooked, but a skilled meat glue artist can create “steaks” that fool experts – even when they’re raw.

Sausages, hot dogs, and other processed meats – Transglutaminase is added to provide uniform texture to processed meats. The “bits” become smooth and seamless. Imagine Oscar Mayer balogna and you’ll get the picture.

Imitation crab – Similar to hot dogs and sausages, only made with fish, usually pollock.

Fish balls, chicken nuggets, and other examples of deliciousness – Makes all that chicken viscera go down smooth.

Novel culinary creations – Some chefs are getting pretty creative with meat glue. One guy in NYC, for example, uses meat glue to make flourless noodles out of shrimp! I’d eat that.

On its face, meat glue sounds awful. I don’t think I have to explain why. It’s just repulsive on a visceral level. Furthermore, it’s generally used to make some pretty awful foods. We can’t really blame the transglutaminase for that, though. It’s not the meat glue that makes chicken nuggets a bad idea; it’s the hydrogenated vegetable oil in which they’re fried and the refined wheat breading in which the “chicken” is encased. I suppose you could call meat glue an enabler, but it’s not the offending party. But is it itself bad for you?

The FDA has deemed it “generally safe” (what confidence!) and there’s got to be something in PubMed that justifies their conclusion… right? Well, I searched far and wide and while there is a ton of research on culinary and industrial applications of transglutaminase, there was nothing about the safety thereof. Nothing good, nothing bad. It simply wasn’t there in any direction.

Most of it was stuff like the paper showing that microbial transglutaminase increases the sensory appeal of chicken sausages made from various chicken parts across several parameters, including texture, water retention, and appearance. Note that researchers failed to mention taste. I take this to mean meat glue made the texture of the sausages uniform (so the average consumer doesn’t know what they’re eating) and improved their plumpness (added water weight). In other words, meat glue allows consumers to eat meat paste without inconvenient thoughts of dead baby animals obstructing their carefree chewing and swallowing. So, it may be used in a misleading way, but there’s nothing here about negative health effects, either from eating the glue itself or caused by it.

As I see it, the real danger with glued meat is in the uneven heating of reconstituted steaks made up of random pieces of stew meat. See, most reasonable people eat their steak at or below medium doneness. I’m a rare-to-medium-rare man myself, and with a real slab of animal, going rare, medium rare, or medium usually isn’t a problem. The exterior – the part that’s potentially been exposed to dangerous bacteria – is cooked or seared. The inside may be undercooked or even bloody, but the inside of a piece of real meat doesn’t get significant bacterial exposure, so there’s little to no danger. But “steaks” aren’t one piece of meat. They are made of multiple pieces of meat, each with its own history, its own exterior, and its own collection of bacteria. If you treat a glued together “steak” like a regular steak and eat it below medium, you’ll be eating some undercooked meat exteriors. Unless you braise that fake steak or burn it to a crisp, there’s no way you’ll know if all the component pieces have been sufficiently cooked. And if you’re ordering steak at a standard restaurant, you have no control over how it’s handled – or even what you’re really eating. Bonded meat isn’t necessarily unhealthy, but cooking it well requires a little more attention to detail, and in a restaurant, especially your garden variety chain restaurant, the cooking is entirely out of your hands.

Beyond that, it’s the deception that really bugs me. I think a lot of the outcry against transglutaminase can be explained by that: people don’t like being deceived, especially when there’s money on the line. If I buy a filet, it had better be an actual filet (singular), not a random assortment of trim and stew cobbled together and sprinkled with a bonding enzyme. Luckily, I know the meat I buy is real and whole, as does anyone who buys direct from farmers or from trusted butchers and meat counters, but not everyone has the inclination or ability to source meat from the source.

If you’re worried that the meat you buy contains transglutaminase, you can do a few things to avoid any potential complications:

  • Do what the guy in the video did and gently tug on your meat. If your steak comes apart, it’s probably “steak.” It’s probably best to perform the tug test before you pay for the meat, and most meat counters/butchers will allow you to inspect what they sell.
  • Just cook it thoroughly. I would advise against cooking your “steak” like a steak until well done, because, well, that just ruins meat, but a nice braise, crockpot stew, or soup would all work. Remember: it is meat and it is edible.
  • Ask. Ask your butcher, your meat supplier, or your waiter if the meat contains glue. They should know, and if they don’t (or if they’re unwilling to say), order something else or go elsewhere.

Honestly, though, I don’t think transglutaminase in and of itself represents a big problem. It might come in otherwise unhealthy or suboptimal foods (processed meat, chicken nuggets, etc.) and it might expose you to bacteria if undercooked, but I don’t think it’s anything to lose sleep over.

What say you, readers? Where do you stand on meat glue?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. RECONSTITUTED steak? I’ve never heard of it. Any restaurant caught serving it here in southwest Texas would be burned down.

    Phocion Timon wrote on May 25th, 2011
  2. Thanks Mark…but no thanks…Lets see has a long chemical name…OUT!
    why eat chemicals at all ??
    GO for the real deal…read the labels!!….Another reason I don’t buy store brand or pre-made sausages of any kind….ya never have to wonder whats in them,how old it is, or how they were processed..

    Daveman wrote on May 25th, 2011
  3. So when I go to Fred Meyer and buy a steak from behind the glass which they wrap into paper to be weighed…it could have this meat glue in it and not be a steak at all?

    Or is it just the pre-packaged meats and meat in restaurants?
    What about skinless, boneless chicken breasts already packaged in the store?
    That could easily be glued meat huh?

    Katzenberg wrote on May 25th, 2011
  4. Brought to us by Ajinomoto…the same friendly company that brought us msg. MSG 101….’enzyme’ is also code word for added msg.

    “Ajinomoto is the only producer of food grade TG, marketed under the brand name Activa (not Activia, which is a pro-biotic yogurt for women). Ajinomoto offers Activa to individuals in 1 pound increments. A kilo currently costs roughly $60 and will glue over 100 pounds of meat paste and a substantially larger amount of whole muscle pieces. Activa is also available through some online retailers. Activa is not pure TG, as the pure form is too concentrated to use easily. Instead, Ajinomoto blends TG with fillers (maltodextrin, a break-down product of starch) and other functional ingredients to suit the end needs of the user. The types available are:

    • Activa RM: Most chefs use RM, which is designed to bond even problem foods like chicken breasts and cooked meats. RM is a mixture of TG, maltodextrin, and the helper protein sodium caseinate. Sodium caseinate is a water soluble protein derived from milk, and TG bonds it extremely well. The caseinate in Activa RM fills in the gaps between the pieces being glued, making up for any lack of available protein in the food itself. RM can be sprinkled on like a powder, mixed with 4 times its weight in water to make a slurry, or added directly into meat mixtures. Even if a recipe doesn’t require the extra bonding insurance caseinate provides, there is no disadvantage to having it mixed with the TG. For most applications, RM is the only TG you will ever need.

    • Activa GB: GB (“greatest bond”) is a mixture of TG, maltodextrin, gelatin, and an anti-caking agent. Gelatin is bonded extremely well by TG and therefore Activa GB forms strong bonds. It is not as versatile as RM because it cannot be made into a slurry, it is more sensitive to water, and it has a shorter working time. If you need a stronger bond, GB is useful.

    • Activa GS: GS is the newest addition to the Activa line. It is nice because it can be left out on the counter all day without going bad. Like GB, it is a mixture of TG, maltodextrin, and gelatin, with added polyphosphate salts and a little oil. It is always used in the form of a slurry of 4 parts water to one part Activa GS. The polyphosphates make the slurry alkaline (basic, high pH). The enzyme is inactive at high pH, so the slurry is stable all day. Once the slurry is painted on meat, the pH drops, the enzymes become active, and gluing begins.

    • Activa TI and TIU:TI is simply TG and maltodextrin with no added helper protein. TIU is the Kosher version of TI and is the only Kosher TG available. TI is packaged at twice the enzyme level as RM or GB. It can be sprinkled or made into a slurry. It will not bond as wide a range of foods as RM.

    • Activa YG: YG a mixture of TG, lactose, maltodextrin, yeast extract, and safflower oil. It is designed to thicken and improve the texture of dairy systems like yogurt and cheese.

    • Activa FP: FP is similar to RM but contains skim milk powder, which is friendlier on a nutrition label than caseinate (the useful part of skim milk powder). FP is useful for marketing a product that has an ingredients declaration.”

    I’ll choose to keep it simple. There is no substitute for real food.

    cj wrote on May 25th, 2011
  5. I am glad to live in the european union :)

    tonihock wrote on May 25th, 2011
  6. I have yet to find any evidence the “meat glue” has been banned in Europe. Here is a link to a website debunking the video:

    From what I have found so far, the most dangerous aspect of “TG” is not the enzyme itself but the risk undercooking a “steak” that was assembled using poorly handled, bacteria laden scraps (I am a rare-medium rare guy). One way around this is to buy so-called “primal” cuts and butcher them in to steaks, chops, roasts yourself. Way cheaper, too.

    RupertDBear wrote on May 25th, 2011
  7. This info is just another piece of the deception puzzle that the food industry perpetuates. It is why I buy half a beef from a friend/rancher and get it cut and wrapped locally….

    sad sad commentary.

    John wrote on May 25th, 2011
  8. About three years ago, I was tested for antitissue transglutaminase IgA and was told I have “an autoimmune reaction to the human enzyme tissue transglutaminase, secondary to dietary gluten sensitivity.” I did some research on tranglutaminase at the time and found that the enzyme was used in not just meat, but also in noodles, baked goods (including some gluten-free baked goods), and many other products that need to be “glued” together. I am aware that there may be differences in porcine, beef, and human TTG, but I don’t need my autoimmune system reacting to this stuff, thank you. Here’s an article for 2005 recommending transglutaminase NOT be used in baked goods. To quote: “However, recent research into the molecular mechanism of coeliac disease suggests the disturbing possibility that transglutaminase in baked products may act upon gliadin proteins in dough to generate the epitope associated with the coeliac response. Further work is urgently required to assess this possibility. In the meantime, we do not recommend the use of transglutaminase in baked products.”
    So I avoid any gluten-free baked products and now I find it is possibly in meats that I eat (rarely, since I buy my own pastured beef and pork for home cooking). Great. One more reason to eat primal and KNOW where your food comes from!

    Laurie D. wrote on May 25th, 2011
  9. Though TodayTonight may be the yellowest of the yellow journalism in Australia I thank them for this. My parents watch TT and hopefully I can scare them off supermarket meat (since its grain fed crap a lot of the time) anyway.

    Anyway, supermarket steaks in Aus are probably glued together. However, because supermarket steaks need to be cooked welldone to taste any good its not too much of a problem for me the occasional time I eat a supermarket steak.

    Bushrat wrote on May 25th, 2011
  10. Hi, so not related to the topic but I am having a real hard time finding marrow bones to eat, could anyone help me out with some suggestions?

    Kyle wrote on May 25th, 2011
  11. Thanks for being a consistent voice of sanity Mark. This is just another witch hunt brought up by fearmongers who profit from spreading misinformation and exploiting the fears of a audience that already strongly tends towards Hypochondriasis.

    Like you said, in heavily processed foods, the TG is the least of your worries. I’ve cooked with the stuff, using top quality ingredients. I’ve also dined at high end restaurants where the chefs use it as a powerful tool to create delicious flavors and textures. If anything should be banned, it’s the CAFOs and factory slaughterhouses that create sick animals and bacteria tainted meats to begin with.

    TG in and of itself is a completely natural and harmless enzyme. Worried about the safety of your meats? DON’T BUY THE CHEAP STUFF. It’s really amazing how Americans strive to spend as little as possible on their food and then wonder why their health suffers.

    Here’s an idea: cancel your cable. Try driving less. With the money you save on not watching stupid television and driving when you could walk or ride a bike, you’ll be able to buy real meat from a real butcher, instead of processed crap sold bulk at your local Costco, Sam’s Club, or other warehouse of horrors.

    Simon wrote on May 25th, 2011
    • err, typo, that’s NOT driving when you could walk or ride a bike.

      Simon wrote on May 25th, 2011
  12. From Robb Wolf’s Paleo Solution:

    “Transglutaminase is an enzyme that modifies *every* protein we make in the body.” [pg 90]

    “A recent study looking at children with type 1 diabetes [an autoimmune condition] found that a significant number of them had overt gut pathology, i.e., celiac. Some had a positive antibody test for celiac, but a number of kids were negative on both the Wheat Gluten Antibody test [a common blood test for celiac] and on an intestinal biopsy. So doctors would think there was no gluten influence on their condition. Interestingly, however, nearly all the kids showed antibodies in the deep tissues of the microvilli to transglutaminase” [pg 95]

    lorraine wrote on May 25th, 2011
  13. Hi, what is not natural and the real thing is total garbage, aren’t we taking in enought of it ,enough is enough

    Patricia wrote on May 25th, 2011
  14. Labelling on food? What next? Forced labor camps? Listen, if you want nanny-state government regulation, go and live in France or Europe or some other commie country.

    America is the land of the free. If a food producer wants to glue its meat together then let it. Nobody is forcing you to buy it. Grow your own cows if its that big a deal to you.

    God bless America – land of the free and home of the brave.

    USA USA wrote on May 25th, 2011
    • do you happen to be one of the ones creating these poisons?????shame on you, are you feeding this stuff to yoursel and your children?????

      Patricia wrote on May 25th, 2011
      • No I do not feed this glued meat to myself and certainly not to my children. I buy AMERICAN beef, not this knock-off Australian beef.

        USA! USA! USA!

        USA USA wrote on May 25th, 2011
      • Incidentally I am not one of the ones “creating these poisons” but I object to government regulations. This is the land of the free. Do you think George Washington asked his butcher to label the ingredients in his meat? No, because he ate AMERICAN beef. 100% pure.

        USA! USA! USA!

        USA USA wrote on May 25th, 2011
      • And one more thing Patricia and all the other pro-labellers (= commie enablers):

        Have you ever heard the expression “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen”?

        Well, here’s a little variation on that:

        If you can’t take the freedom, get out of America.

        USA! USA! USA!

        USA USA wrote on May 25th, 2011
        • I can take the heat in any kitchen , but you said it beautifuly , George Washington ate 100% pure beef , or fowl, vegetables,or what ever was in his and others at that time in history, not the garbage that has been thrown at us today.

          Patricia wrote on May 25th, 2011
        • George Washington didn’t eat vegetables. Nothing but pure unadulterated American beef – with perhaps a side order of freedom fries. Testosterone coursed through his veins and every meal he ate contained at least 24 oz of prime steak – including breakfast.

          Do you think we’d have won our independence if Washington had been a vegetarian, munching away on his organic tofu and skinless chicken breast?

          Fat chance. We’d have got our asses handed to us and we’d all be speaking German. Fact.

          So don’t talk to me about vegetables Patricia.

          USA USA wrote on May 25th, 2011
        • I smell troll in the afternoon.

          Troll detector wrote on May 26th, 2011
    • “land of the free and home of the brave.” and the DECIEVED??

      janeen wrote on May 27th, 2011
  15. Glue is not a real food in my opinion. Another great post!

    Dawn wrote on May 25th, 2011
  16. I don’t think that you where there to see exactly what was eaten,
    do you realize what you sound like to the other members of this forum, why don’t you retier for the evening ,and maybe you will have a clearer head in the morning

    Patricia wrote on May 25th, 2011
  17. Patricia, I don’t know you, but based solely on our little tete-a-tete here tonight, I suspect you are:

    (a) not American – probably European, possibly French

    and (b) really sexy.

    The first is obvious, the second is just, I dunno, Primal intuition.

    Grok on Patricia!

    USA USA wrote on May 25th, 2011
  18. Curious how in the video they put on masks (because the meat glue is “dangerous” and they don’t want it in their bodies), but then later they eat the product in the glued meat???

    Warren wrote on May 25th, 2011
  19. While serving in Iraq I was eating a steak that just didn’t seem right and had all the components you explained. It was actually so distasteful that I didn’t finish it. I’m glad that you covered this topic because I was curious about that weird piece of so called steak. Thanks.

    Eric wrote on May 26th, 2011
  20. Commenting on a much earlier post in this thread—- I’m down with pooling the money and buying that Island :)

    SteveMarie wrote on May 26th, 2011
  21. Hi Mark it was great meeting you last night Crossfit NYC. Your talk and Q&A were great.

    “Fat burning is our default factory setting.” My favorite quote of the night.

    Brett_nyc wrote on May 26th, 2011
  22. Thomas Keller uses this stuff in his restaurant and has a number of recipes that call for it in his “Under Pressure” cookbook. Although TK is not paleo/primal, he does appear to be part of the local and sustainable movement and I trust his approach to cooking and food preparation in general. I agree that it would be more than a bit misleading to take a bunch of odd pieces of this and that and sell it glued together as a prime cut, but I don’t think that the meat glue itself is harmful.

    Jimi wrote on May 26th, 2011
  23. Dave Arnold, a food science guru at the French Culinary Institute in NY, had a recent blog post about the video.

    For most of us who stick to fruits, vegetables, meat, and largely unprocessed food, it’s unlikely that we’ll come across it.

    There’s always going to be “the next big scare.”

    Adam wrote on May 26th, 2011
  24. Now I kind of want to get some meat glue… make a giant low-carb wrap out of pieces of prosciutto 😀

    Stuart wrote on May 26th, 2011
  25. Ewww is right. Which really kinda sucks because I love bologna and hotdogs, and knowledge is ruining it for me!!! LOL.

    Jeanna wrote on May 26th, 2011
  26. So does all the meat glue get used up in the bonding process? Can we be 100% certain about that?

    For some reason, the thought of ingesting something that glues meat together seems like something to be avoided. Not that I am made of meat or anything….

    Solovus wrote on May 26th, 2011
  27. This entire post makes me glad that all of my steaks came from one animal (named Obamoo, just in case you were wondering), wrapped in paper the day it was butchered and lying in pretty white packages in my freezer. Whatever steak I take out, I know it’s real. Where I live, we are very fortunate to have several restaurants that locally source their meat and organic veggies and eating there you know you are getting the real thing. One day when taking some friends out to one of these restaurants (Italian), they said they’d rather go to Olive Garden because they have favorite items on the menu. I happen to know what’s in Olive Garden’s food, because my son had an allergic reaction there so I got to look at the (lengthy and unpronounceable) ingredient lists for everything he’d eaten. Everything they have there is a frankenfood made from a mix with all kinds of crappy additives. It might look similar to Italian food that you’d get in a real restaurant, but it’s nothing like it. Never eaten there again.

    Bottom line: eat at real places, get real food. I’d rather eat out less often and pay more to eat real food.

    Robin wrote on May 26th, 2011
  28. Wow, I did’t even know about it. I can’t believe how far the food industry has been crossing all the lines. I always buy a whole chicken, and I don’t eat pork. But I do eat a lot of steak, now that I know this, I am going to inspect all of my meat.
    Thanks Mark, always very informative post.

    Tatianna wrote on May 26th, 2011
  29. Sorry Mark, but as a nutritionist I can’t agree.

    Transglutaminase creates an unatural bond between lysine and glutamine, there are questions about whether this compromises two of the essential amino acids in meat/fish.

    In the microbial form it also acts as a blood clotting agent.

    It is used in most forms of commercial cereal products, milk, and yoghurt as well as meat/fish. Worse, there is no need for them to put this on the ingredients list.

    Being cynical this seems like a big Pharma ploy to sell more statins.

    Judymac wrote on May 27th, 2011
  30. I had my first experience with this stuff when a family member got some “stead” from a source that I wouldn’t have chosen for getting meat. When I was presented with the product to cook, I took one look at the strips and told her that these aren’t normal (while they were still in the wrap). After grilling them, and each of us having a bite, I announced that she must never again get meat at that store, because these were not genuine strip steaks; they were formed together into a piece of meat that looked like a steak. Needless to say, every piece of meat that comes into my house is direct from the butcher or processor, and I inspect the facility first. I would trust my own eyes over those of a government inspector.

    Kevin Beck wrote on May 28th, 2011
    • Kevin, you are right. In addition, IMO, those who say paying attention to from where your food comes is too time-consuming and can’t be done are not yet ready to take responsibility for their own (and their family’s) health.

      OK, no snarky replies, please. I said IN MY OPINION. You’re welcome to your opinion as well. I just posit that if you spend more than 2 hours on the internet (MDA excluded) or watching TV, you have time. Again, IMO.

      Mary Anne wrote on May 28th, 2011
  31. I prefer the “meat glue” that EpicMealTime makes to hold their creations together. Real meat!

    Don wrote on May 28th, 2011
  32. On the plus side, “Meat Glue” would make for a great band name…

    Danny wrote on May 28th, 2011
  33. ‘I would advise against cooking your “steak” like a steak until well done, because, well, that just ruins meat…’.

    Wrong! It only does that when the cuts are too thick (the way the U.S.A. supplies them) or too lean (the way most cows are bred and fed these days). But you can fix both by further slicing them yourself and cutting pockets and putting butter in them – and then you can cook them properly. I wonder if suppliers could incorporate butter or some other fat during the gluing process, as well as cutting them properly?

    P.M.Lawrence wrote on May 28th, 2011

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