What is transglutaminase and, if it's not so bad, should we be more accepting of food chemistry in general?
Transglutaminase isn't something your grandmother ate. In fact, it violates two of Michael Pollan's folksy Food Rules since third-graders can't easily pronounce the ingredient and the enzyme comes from a place where workers wear surgical masks. It doesn't help that the chemical is made by Ajinomoto, the manufacturer of that other much-maligned additive: MSG. One tabloid exposé called it "the industry-wide secret butchers don’t want you to know about."
Transglutaminase is an enzyme that adheres proteins. It occurs naturally in our bloodstream and in foods like salted caviar. First manufactured by food scientists in the late 1980s using soil-borne bacteria, now transglutaminase, better known by its unfortunate nickname, "meat glue," is added to low-quality extruded meat gels, imitation crab, or other "formed meats." It's also become something of a darling among chefs exploring the use of novel technologies in the kitchen. Ideas in Food devoted an excellent chapter to the ingredient, and, as Lily Mihalik writes this month in Meatpaper:
Meat glue is now so popular that Ajinomoto is considering offering smaller-sized, more consumer-friendly packaging for home cooks. While Ajinomoto declined a request to release specific sales figures for meat glue, the company did acknowledge a rapid uptick in sales.\n
Transglutaminase might not be a perfect tool for making more nutritious, affordable foods available for all of us, despite its potential to transform the texture of tofu (above). Still, the rise of transglutaminase raises important questions about the acceptance of chemistry. Should more food and health activists embrace food science?
After all, sound science is essential for developing nutritional guidelines, higher-quality foods, and more sustainable manufacturing. In the summer issue of Gastronomica (subscription required), David Julian McClements, César Vega, Anne E. McBride, and Eric Andrew Decker write that the false dichotomy between science and the humanities undermines the goals of the food movement.
Some people eat all types of processed foods; others choose only what they consider to be “good” processed products; still others are forced to eat only what they have access to or can afford. It is unlikely that a majority of the American population will stop eating processed food in the near future, whether it is bought at Whole Foods or Walmart. Additional scientiﬁc research and further development of processed products could result in foods that furnish a signiﬁcant amount of essential nutrients to the everyday diet of all Americans, regardless of their ﬁnancial means.\n
Clearly, the risks associated with the questionable practice of gluing marginal meat parts back together isn't a problem that should be blamed on food chemistry alone. Arguably, when it comes to salt, sustainability, or maybe even scary-sounding enzymes, new science and technology certainly deserve a seat at our table.
Images of the tofu texture with (C through F) and without (A and B) transglutaminase via "The impact of transglutaminase on soy proteins and tofu texture" ©2007 Elsevier.