Is There Meat Glue in Your Food? How restaurants may be faking your steak (or sushi)

Editor’s Note:

Ever gone out to an inexpensive buffet and marveled at the vast display of freshly prepared, hot food just waiting to be devoured? You choose the perfectly fried tempura shrimp—that unbeknownst to you—may have been mixed with a binding enzyme called transglutaminase—otherwise known as meat glue. This is not an unlikely scenario as meat glue—though banned in the European Union—is classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as “generally recognized as safe.”

In the book, “A Consumer’s Guide to Toxic Food Additives” authors Bill and Linda Bonvie reveal the many additives lurking in our everyday food and outline ways we can identify and eliminate them from our diets. Following on the heels of our excerpt about the health implications of carrageenan, this one is sure to “stick” in your mind.

Meat Glue—Pink Slime’s Far More Sickening Sibling

Back in 2012, an ABC news lead story about Pink Slime (called in the industry by the more appetizing name, “finely textured beef”) struck a chord of disgust in the meat-eating public.

Petitions were formed to get the product out of the school lunch program, and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver conducted pink slime demos where he put beef scraps in a washing machine and then soaked them in ammonia and water.

Right before the slime hit the fan, however, ABC news affiliates spilled the beans about another underground meat practice. It was the use of an enzyme called transglutaminase, or, as it’s more commonly referred to, meat glue.

Even experts can’t tell the difference.

If you’ve ever attended a banquet or a convention, or maybe even dined in a restaurant, and were served an expensive-looking steak or sushi at a bargain price, you may have wondered how that came to be. The answer is either that the restaurant owner is losing money with each meal or, more likely, that there’s a bag of meat glue in the kitchen.

The fake food industry has also found use for meat glue in a product bizarrely called “JUST Egg,” something that contains no trace of eggs. But along with brain-damaging amino acids, you will find transglutaminase listed on the JUST Egg label—yet another excellent reason to read food ingredients carefully no matter what brand names the products are given.

The Role of Meat Glue in ‘Tight Junction Dysfunction’

In 2015, researchers from Israel and Germany published a study on how “industrial food additives” could be the cause of the “rising incidence of autoimmune disease.”

Autoimmune diseases (when the body launches an attack on itself) have shown “strong evidence of a steady rise” in Western cultures over the last thirty years, the authors said. Cases of diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, lupus, and rheumatic and celiac diseases are climbing every year.

According to the researchers, these illnesses can be due to something called “tight junction dysfunction.” Tight junctions refer to the “barrier and the fence” formed by connected cell membranes. When this finely tuned barrier is disrupted, it can set the stage for a wide variety of serious ailments.

The study, conducted by Professor Aaron Lerner and Dr. Torsten Matthias, called out transglutaminase as one of the commonly used food additives that can disrupt this internal barrier and enhance “intestinal junction leakage.”

Additionally, like manufactured glutamic acid (MSG), the authors pointed out that TG enzyme is quite different from the transglutaminase found naturally in the human body. Its use in the food industry, they warn, is also expanding on a “great scale.”

Celiac disease sufferers in particular, who are no doubt taking pains to avoid foods containing gluten, should also be aware of what these researchers believe is a link between their condition and meat glue, which may possibly explain the surge in celiac disease. “Several observations have led to the hypothesis that microbial transglutaminase is a new environmental enhancer of celiac disease,” they noted in a 2015 report, explaining how the substance may affect the immune system and promote intestinal leakage, allowing “more immunogenic foreign molecules to induce celiac disease.”

“If future research substantiates this hypothesis,” they wrote, “the findings will affect food product labeling, food additive policies of the food industry, and consumer health education.”

In the meantime, however, consumers will remain on their own when it comes to protecting their health from this hazardous adhesive addition to their favorite dish—especially when dining out (and out of sight of what’s being done in the kitchen).

Know Your Badditives and How to Avoid Them: Meat Glue (Transglutaminase)

  • When dining out, watch out for menu items that are priced so low they seem too good to be true—because they probably are. If you’re attending a conference or convention, that rib-eye steak they’re serving up may very well have been scraps of meat the day before (Remember: restaurants have no requirements for any kind of labels or warnings, so you pretty much have to trust the integrity of whatever establishment you patronize).
  • Avoid buffet or supermarket “sushi.” Good (and safe) sushi is an expensive and very skilled dish to prepare, but ersatz versions may well be put together with meat glue.
  • If you’re buying prepared meat, chicken, or seafood in the supermarket (either frozen or made into an entrée), check for either transglutaminase on the ingredient list or the words “formed” or “reformed” on the packaging. Don’t expect to see any notice of this on the Nutrition Facts panel, which, in fact, is a very poor source of information about processed foods.

As transglutaminase is now appearing in new products, such as the fake food called “JUST Egg,” it’s obvious that the industry is finding more and more uses for it—another reason why reading the ingredients label on any processed food is not just a good idea, but a necessity.

Linda and Bill Bonvie are sibling journalists who have spent more than two decades writing about food safety and environmental issues for magazines and newspapers. They’ve also co-authored several books including “Chemical-Free Kids” and “A Consumer’s Guide to Toxic Food Additives.”

This excerpt has been adapted from “A Consumer’s Guide to Toxic Food Additives” by Bill and Linda Bonvie. To buy this book, click here.