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What is "meat glue"?

The idea of eating a steak made from pieces of meat scrap glued together is not likely to attract most people. Same goes for blending shrimp and meat glue in a blender to make “shrimp spaghetti”, a famous dish made popular by renowned chef Wylie Dufresne in his (now closed) New York WD-50 restaurant.

So what exactly is this “meat glue?” Rest assured that no horses were condemned to the glue factory to produce it. What we’re talking about is an enzyme called transglutaminase that allows a mouthful of shrimp to be served in the form of noodles that look, but certainly do not taste, like regular pasta. How does it do this? By facilitating a chemical reaction that forges links between structural protein molecules. Proteins of course are composed of chains of amino acids, and transglutaminase links the amino acid lysine in one chain to glutamine in an adjacent chain. If these chains are located on the surface of adjacent pieces of meat, the pieces get stuck together, almost like magic. The joint then looks just like one of the white streaks of gristle or fat commonly seen in meat.

In the 1990s, the food industry discovered that the transglutaminase enzyme can be isolated in good yield from the bacterium Streptoverticillium mobaraense and that it can be used to “restructure” meat, fish and poultry. For example, with the help of transglutaminase, instead of being discarded as waste, bits of chicken left over after its’ carcass has been processed, can be glued together to produce chicken patties. Similarly, artificial crab legs and shrimp can be made by sticking together ground pieces of cheaper seafood such as Pollock. While the taste of such artificial foods can be criticized, there is no health issue associated with consuming transglutaminase. Like any other protein, it is readily broken down into its component amino acids in the digestive tract. “Meat glue” is produced for the food industry under the name Activa by the giant Japanese company Ajinomoto which also markets monosodium glutamate (MSG). It did its work quietly behind the scenes until celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal brought it out of the shadows at the Fat Duck, the restaurant on the outskirts of London that has been labeled by many as the best eating place in the world. Blumenthal’s enthusiasm for creating novel dishes with transglutaminase rubbed off on Wylie Dufresne at New York’s famed WD-50 restaurant who managed to grind shrimp into noodles with the help of transglutaminase and served it on a bed of smoked yogurt.

Unfortunately, transglutaminase also lends itself to some less savory applications. Meat producers or butchers can use it to bind meat scraps that are too small to be sold into slices that look every bit as delectable as prime cuts. The seamless joints are virtually undetectable. Just take the bits of meat, sprinkle them with transglutaminase, place them on a sheet of plastic wrap and roll tightly into the shape of a tube. Refrigerate for a few hours and then unwrap. You’ll be looking at meat that for all the world looks like a single piece of filet. And it can be priced accordingly.

People adhering to religious dietary laws could also face a problem with transglutaminase, since the enzyme is isolated from blood. And more often than not, for commercial purposes, it would be bovine and pig blood that were used.

This could be a sticky situation.


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