What You Need to Know about Transglutaminase

As health-conscious, clean label-oriented consumers become ever more interested in knowing what kinds of ingredients are in the food that they buy, many additives that have been commonly used for years like xanthan gum and soy lecithin are facing increased public scrutiny. Such is the case for transglutaminase, an ingredient that is also known as “meat glue.” Read on to gain a better understanding of transglutaminase and some of the facts and misconceptions behind this additive and its use.

What is transglutaminase?

Transglutaminase (TG) is a naturally occurring enzyme found in plants, animals, and the human body. An enzyme is a type of biological molecule, usually a protein, that catalyzes and speeds up normal chemical reactions that occur in cells. In our bodies, for example, TG is involved in tasks such as building muscle, eliminating toxins, and breaking down food particles as part of the digestive process. On the other hand, in food preparation, TG and other enzymes can be used to develop and enhance flavors, colors, and textures.

How is TG used in food?

The most common way in which TG is used in preparing food is as a binding agent for meat and poultry products, hence the nickname “meat glue,” which is a fairly accurate description of what TG can do. Many novel and popular dishes and products like bacon-wrapped beef filet, imitation crab, and sausages without casings need extra help to retain their shape without falling apart. TG fulfils this function by binding different meat proteins together in order to create a cohesive whole. As an additive, TG can also help to make meat more uniform in size so that it cooks more evenly and safely and has a better appearance. While other common binders for this purpose include gelatin or egg whites, the use of TG as a binder by chefs and culinary professionals as a way to develop innovative dishes highlights the progression of this practice.

Outside of meat products, TG can also be found in other goods. For example, TG is useful in making the crust of artisan breads firm and crispy. In addition, in dairy-based items it is frequently added to yogurt to improve its texture.

How is TG made?

TG occurs naturally in two organisms: plants and animals. Over the years, food scientists have developed new methods to produce TG on a scale that is large enough for commercial food production. Today, TG is made by fermenting Streptoverticillium mobaraense, a strain of non-toxigenic and non-pathogenic bacteria.

How long has TG been a food additive?

While TG has been studied by scientists and researchers since the 1950s, the aforementioned fermentation process wasn’t developed until the 1990s. TG received the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) designation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1998, and it has been since been used in food preparation for over a decade.

Is TG safe?

TG is a safe ingredient for humans to consume. In addition to its GRAS classification by the FDA, its safety in selected meat and poultry products has been verified by the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since its introduction into the food supply, there have been no known food safety issues involving products that contain TG. It’s also important to remember that the amount of TG that you consume in food is likely very small. Of all the meat consumed in the US, TG is only used in approximately 0.3 percent, and in those cases, it represents a fraction of the product’s complete content.

What are some advantages of TG?

TG offers a safe and effective way to produce some of our favorite food, as well as novel food combinations such as meat noodles. Although it is mostly used in meat, TG is also suitable for people who are vegetarian or vegan because it comes from microbes rather than animal-based agents such as egg whites and gelatin.

Why is TG sometimes criticized?

TG has been criticized in recent years due to concerns regarding the possible negative effects it might have on people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. However, speculation that TG can cause celiac disease is not currently supported by any scientific studies or evidence. Although research into this issue is ongoing, at present it appears likely that any connection between TG and celiac disease only relates to those susceptible to these conditions.

How can you identify food with TG?

If you do still prefer to avoid TG in your food, it’s easy to identify products containing it because the packaging must adhere to specific USDA labeling requirements. Like all other additives, TG needs to be included in the product’s ingredients list. In addition, if a meat product has been created from different parts of an animal using TG, this must be disclosed on the label by using “formed” or “reformed” as part of the product’s name, as in “formed beef tenderloin.”

Mark CrumpackerMark Crumpacker is the CMO and President of Zume Culinary at Zume Inc.,  the Silicon Valley company that has revolutionized the pizza delivery business through its fleet of mobile kitchens outfitted with smart ovens. Mark has more than two decades of experience in the realm of consumer behavior and its effect on brands’ marketing strategies. Mark studied economics at the University of Colorado and earned a bachelor of fine arts in advertising and graphic design from the ArtCenter College of Design. You can follow Mark on Twitter at @markcrumpacker and read his full bio here