After (partially) recovering from the non- crisis created by idiots slinging around the term ‘pink slime,’ now the industry has another demonization to confront: The use of so-called ‘meat glue.’
Have you heard the term “meat glue” before?
Have to admit I hadn’t paid much attention before, but lately several high-profile videos have surfaced (check it out on YouTube) denouncing an ingredient — actually, an enzyme known as transglutaminase — that is used in all kinds of formed and structured meat and poultry products.
Not to mention dozens of other applications.
The way the phrase is being tossed around is reminiscent of that other corruption, “pink slime,” which demonized a perfectly acceptable protein ingredient also used in formulating products engineered to taste good yet still remain affordable.
Unfortunately, nothing about “meat glue” conjures up a pleasant, enjoyable eating experience. However, we’ll explore that notion further in just a moment, using the very words of the critics themselves.
Speaking of which, here is an excerpt from a rant by Greg, who’s the spokesperson for a California-based outfit called Ballistic BBQ:
“Meat glue is always going to be totally weird sounding, but we’ve all eaten it before (if you eat at fast food restaurants, at least),” he wrote. “It’s derived from blood and is a clotting agent that allows different types of meat to stick to each other, hence the name.
“You can do a lot of weird, Frankenstein-type experiments with it.”
Thanks, Greg. Way to destroy any possibility of people understanding what and why this ingredient is used in product R&D. His video goes on to demonstrate how to make “fake ribeye from beef brisket and cheap chopped-up stew meat,” ending up with something he calls a “Frankensteak.”
If you bail on the website at this point, you go away thinking that meat processors are once again screwing with the food supply, and that anything other than high-end, whole-muscle cuts — you know, the ones most of us can’t afford on a regular basis — you’re eating a degraded, possibly unhealthy food item.
In contrast, here is what the International Culinary Center has to say about the ingredient, which by the way was first isolated from beef and pork blood — it’s actually a clotting agent — back in the 1950s:
“Transglutaminase (TG), better known to chefs as ‘meat glue,’ has the amazing ability to bond protein-containing foods together,” according to the group’s website. “Raw meats bound with TG are often strong enough to be handled as if they were whole, uncut muscles.
“TG is safe, natural and easy to use.”
The post includes detailed instructions for using TG in the kitchen, noting that the ingredient is primarily used to:
- Produce uniform portions that cook evenly, look good, and reduce waste
- Bind meat mixtures, such as sausages and franks, that are made without casings
- Make novel meat combinations, such as combining lamb and scallops
Additionally, TG is used in numerous culinary applications, such as thickening egg yolks, strengthening dough mixtures in baked goods and to thicken dairy-based product formulations.
Judged by how it eats
Back to the “meat glue” video.
As the “exposé” proceeds, we watch Mr. Ballistic BBQ layer chunks of low-end stew meat onto a slab of beef brisket, covering them with transglutaminase (as a white powder), then vacuum packaging the results in a refrigerator overnight. He then open the bag to reveal what appears to be a ribeye steak, complete with marbling and the classic fat rind on its outer edge.
Yes, there were a few air pockets visible in the final product, but that’s because the guy’s “manufacturing” his so-called fake steak in a household kitchen, as opposed to using commercial processing equipment.
Now for the punch line. After several minutes spent decrying the use of TG, complaining that “fast-food outlets” are using deceptive marketing tactics by incorporating TG, the narrator slow cooks the steak in a sous vide cooker, sears it on a regular outdoor grill, then slices off a chunk and admits, “This actually looks very good — like a real ribeye — and it has a nice, beefy brisket flavor.”
And your point is?
You used lower quality stew meat, plus beef brisket, to create a product that looks like a ribeye steak, cooks like a ribeye steak and eats like a ribeye steak, using a safe, natural ingredient widely applied in all kinds of food processing operations, many of which have nothing to do with Frankenanything.
But we’re supposed to come away with serious outrage at profit-mongering meat companies, ingredient suppliers and foodservice operators because they developed formulations to make our food choices tasty, palatable, safe and affordable.
Try making meatloaf sometime using only pure, 100% ground chuck or ground round, and see how it turns out. Without some sort of binder to hold in the moisture, you end up with a tough, dry and unpalatable slab of chewy protein.
Whether it’s beef patties, chicken fillets or high-end sausage, virtually every formulated product requires functional ingredients to improve both its culinary appeal and its functionality, such as roast beef that remains palatable while sitting under a heat lamp on a buffet line.
Yes, the meat industry has often gone overboard with creating low-quality, least-cost products that drag down consumer perceptions of an entire category. “Ham With Water Product” comes to mind.
But by his own admission, however, Mr. Frankensteak admitted that the meat-glued ribeye looked good and tasted great.
I wish we all could afford to have real filet mignon or Porterhouse steaks at the center of our plates on other than special occasions. But isn’t the next best thing a product that resembles those cuts, and eats like a delicious steak, at half the price?
If that’s the net result of using meat glue, I’ll “stick” to my original point:
Glue is good.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator