Transglutaminase: Safety, Function and Benefit to Our Food Supply

With the rise and fall of nutritional trends, scary news about new food ingredients, and rediscoveries of traditionally used ingredients, some common parts of our food supply often fall in and out of public scrutiny. One such ingredient is Transglutaminase (TG), a naturally occurring enzyme used to develop flavors and enhance texture in food. Unfortunately, its nickname (meat gluedoes nothing to accurately describe its safety, function and benefit to the consumer.  Today, we will correct a few inaccuracies and share some science to debunk several myths and misperceptions associated with the use of Transglutaminase in our food supply. 

First off, what is Transglutaminase (TG)? 

TG is an enzyme that occurs naturally in plants, animals, and our bodiesThe TG enzyme helps our bodies perform certain tasks such as building muscle, destroying toxins and breaking down food particles during digestion. 

What are enzymes and how are they used in food? 

In food, enzymes are used to develop flavors, colors and textures and to enhance the palatability of our favorite foods. Enzymes are critical in making cheese, brewing beer, baking bread and extracting fruit juice. 

Other functions of the transglutaminase enzyme include: 

  • Making meats, poultry, and seafood uniform in size for even and safe cooking;  
  • Diminishing waste by creating value-added products while improving the appearance and texture of food; 
  • Binding meats, poultry and seafood together (such as sausages without casings and imitation crab);
  • Forming novel food combinations (e.g. beef and bacon); and 
  • Producing special effects with food (e.g. shrimp-meat spaghetti, meat noodles, meat and vegetable pastas, and more).

What do chefs and culinary experts think of Transglutaminase? 

While other safely and often used binders include egg whites or gelatin, the use of TG as a binder reflects the evolution of this practice by famous chefs and culinary experts and contributes to the creation of well-known and popular dishes. TG is mostly associated and used with meat, poultry, and seafood products. For example, it can be used to bind smaller cuts of meat together to make a larger cut, or it can be added to imitation crab or sausages to improve texture. It can even be found in bacon-wrapped beef filets that may be served at your favorite restaurant.  

Is TG safe? 

Yes. TG is safe to consume and has been classified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) for over 10 years.  

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved the use of TG in meat and poultry products. In addition, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has verified the safety of the enzyme for meat and poultry products that have been developed to reduce sodium or fat content. 

To date, TG has proven to be a safe way of combining meat products to satisfy the needs of our growing population. Contrary to what you may have heard about TG, it does not increase or promote the contamination of meats and it does not affect the allergenicity of proteins. Most importantly, the enzyme is broken down when food is thoroughly cooked. 

Remember, reaching a safe internal temperature for meat will also kill any unwanted bacteria like E.coli or Salmonella. It is important to cook meat products to at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit as measured with a thermometer.  

Where does TG come from? 

There are two natural sources of TG: plants and animalsTransglutaminase in use today is made from a fermenting bacterium called Streptoverticillium mobaraense. Since it is produced by microbes and is not an animal-based product, TG is also vegetarian and vegan.  

What about celiac disease? 

TG is not made from wheat, which is associated with celiac disease. However, there have been studies that have shown that there may be some possible associations to celiac disease, but likely only for susceptible individuals. While the research continues to evolve, scientists are investigating to determine if Transglutaminase produced in our bodies could be the target of autoimmunity in celiac disease.i However, for the general population that is not susceptible to celiac disease, Transglutaminase is safe. 

How will I know if a meat product I buy contains TG? 

Products that use TG are required to use the terms “formed” or “reformed” within the product name. Therefore, if a product uses TG, its label may read “Formed Beef Tenderloin” or “Formed Turkey Thigh Roast. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirms that “the enzyme must also be listed in the product ingredient statement along with any other ingredients used in the product formulation.”In sum, Transglutaminase is an approved food additive, and you will see it in the ingredient statement if it’s used. 

Contrary to popular belief, TG is not widely used. It’s found only in about 0.3 percent of all meat consumed in the U.S. And in meat products containing Transglutaminase, TG represents only a fraction of the food’s total content. 

The bottom line: Transglutaminase is safe. 

When used properly, TG is safe to consume. Research on the effects of Transglutaminase on celiac disease continues to evolve. To date, there have been no known food safety or widespreadclinically diagnosed public health issues involving products made with TG since its introduction into our food supply over twenty years ago.  So, if you’re still concerned about Transglutaminase, you can easily identify it by reading the ingredient statement. As consumers, we have the power and data to make informed food choices. 

Article was written by Lily Yang, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Research Associate at Virginia Tech in the Department of Food Science and Technology