Food additives, such as preservatives, colorings and fillers, are commonly used in the food industry to improve the taste, texture and color of products.
While some are harmless, others can be bad for your health.
Transglutaminase, better known as meat glue, is a controversial food additive that many people avoid due to health concerns.
This article discusses transglutaminase and addresses common questions regarding the safety of this ingredient.
Though meat glue may sound scary, transglutaminase is an enzyme that’s found naturally in humans, animals and plants.
It helps link proteins together by forming covalent bonds, which is why it’s commonly called “nature's biological glue” ().
In humans and animals, transglutaminase plays a role in various bodily processes, including blood clotting and sperm production.
It’s also vital for the growth and development of plants.
The transglutaminase used in food is manufactured either from the blood clotting factors of animals like cows and pigs or bacteria derived from plant extracts. It’s typically sold in powder form.
The bonding quality of transglutaminase makes it a useful ingredient for food manufacturers.
As its nickname suggests, it acts as a glue, holding together proteins found in common foods like meat, baked goods and cheese.
This allows food producers to improve the texture of foods or create products, such as imitation crabmeat, by binding different protein sources together.
Summary Transglutaminase is a naturally occurring enzyme found in humans, animals and plants. It’s often used as a food ingredient to bind proteins together, improve food texture or create new products.
Even if you try your best to avoid foods that contain artificial additives, there’s still a good chance that you’ve eaten transglutaminase.
It’s used in various foods, including sausages, chicken nuggets, yogurt and cheese.
One study found that adding transglutaminase to chicken sausages made from various chicken parts led to improved texture, water retention and appearance ().
Chefs in high-end restaurants even use it to produce novel dishes like spaghetti made out of shrimp meat.
Since transglutaminase is so effective at fusing proteins together, it’s also commonly used to create one piece of meat from multiple pieces.
For example, a high-volume restaurant serving buffet-style meals may serve steak made by binding together cuts of cheaper meat with transglutaminase.
It’s also used in the manufacturing of cheese, yogurt and ice cream.
Additionally, it’s added to baked goods to improve dough stability, elasticity, volume and the ability to absorb water ().
Summary Transglutaminase is used to improve the texture and appearance of foods like processed meats, dairy products and baked goods.
With a nickname like meat glue, it’s no surprise that there are safety concerns over the use of transglutaminase in food.
But the main issue with meat glue isn’t necessarily the ingredient itself but rather the increased risk of bacterial contamination of the foods in which it’s used.
When multiple sections of meat are glued together to form one piece, it increases the chances of bacteria being introduced into the food.
Some experts also argue that since proteins constructed with meat glue are not one solid segment, it makes the product harder to cook thoroughly.
What’s more, if a piece of meat is assembled using several different protein sources bonded together with transglutaminase, it becomes difficult to identify the source of a bacterial outbreak.
Another concern is that it may negatively impact those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease ().
Transglutaminase may increase intestinal permeability, which can worsen symptoms in people with celiac disease by creating a higher allergenic load on the immune system.
It’s even been suggested that the surge in people diagnosed with celiac disease may be linked to the increased use of transglutaminase in food (, ).
However, there is no scientific research directly linking transglutaminase to an increased risk of disease, although research in this area is ongoing.
The FDA classifies transglutaminase as GRAS (generally recognized as safe), and the USDA deems the ingredient safe to use in meat and poultry products (7).
The European Union banned the use of transglutaminase in food in 2010 over safety concerns.
Summary There are several concerns regarding the use of transglutaminase, including an increased risk of bacterial contamination and foodborne illnesses. Research also suggests that transglutaminase may negatively impact those with celiac disease.
Though there is currently no evidence linking transglutaminase to increased health risks, it’s understandable that many people want to avoid it.
It may be wise for those with weakened immune systems, food allergies, digestive diseases like Crohn’s and those with celiac or gluten sensitivity to steer clear of foods containing transglutaminase.
Plus, many of the foods that contain transglutaminase like hot dogs, chicken nuggets and other processed meats aren’t good for your health anyway.
In fact, having a high intake of red meat and processed meats has been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer and heart disease in population studies (, , ).
If you want to avoid consuming foods that contain transglutaminase, it’s best to choose whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible.
Be sure to refrain from the following foods:
- Manufactured chicken nuggets
- Products containing “formed” or “reformed” meat
- Foods that contain "TG enzyme," "enzyme" or "TGP enzyme"
- Fast food
- Manufactured poultry pieces, sausages, bacon crumbles and hot dogs
- Imitation seafood
According to the USDA website, transglutaminase must be listed in the product ingredients.
To ensure that your diet is transglutaminase-free, choose high-quality ingredients, such as locally raised, grass-fed meat and poultry, and cook most of your meals at home to know exactly what you’re putting into your body.
Summary Those with digestive diseases, food allergies and weakened immune systems may want to avoid foods that contain transglutaminase. Fast foods, imitation seafood and processed meats are some possible sources of transglutaminase.
Transglutaminase, or meat glue, is a food additive used to improve the texture and appearance of foods like processed meats.
Though major food safety organizations consider it safe, some health concerns surround it, including an increased risk of bacterial contamination.
It may also worsen symptoms of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Whether trying to avoid all food additives or just transglutaminase, it’s best to stay away from processed products and choose high-quality, whole-food ingredients whenever possible.