The Science of Meat Tenderness and Color: The Untold Ben Franklin Story

By: Dylan Rodgers

My fiance and I just opened one room in our apartment to a European couple to give them shelter as they looked for residence here in NYC.  As I gave them the neighborhood tour, ultimately stopping at the food market, they asked me a question I guess I have always just taken for granted:  "Why is your beef in America so red?  Ours has more of a blue-grey hue."

The question at first caught me off guard and I thought, "Well surely American beef companies dye their meat to make it more appealing."  I decided to do a bit of research into the subject and surprisingly landed on a shocking experiment conducted by Benjamin Franklin.

We have all heard the story about Ben Franklin flying a kite with a key attached to it, thereby unraveling the mystery of lightening in 1752.  Well I'm here to tell you about another story; one that happened three years before and altered the world of food forever.

In 1749 Benjamin Franklin electrocuted a turkey.

That's right.  He shocked a turkey to death and discovered the wonderful succulent flavors of electrically stimulated meats.  Believe it or not, electric stimulation to livestock (now conducted immediately after death) is a widely used technique to preserve meaty deliciousness.

Here's how it works:  Immediately after an animal is slaughtered, their carcasses are subjected to roughly a minute of high-voltage shock treatment.  The electricity pulses through the body causing the muscles to tense up (as if they were working out) and go through the process of glycolysis.  In short, glycolysis converts glucose into ATP (muscle energy) and lactic acid.  With plenty of ATP the meat dodges rigor mortis and stays tender.

But as you are undoubtedly asking yourself, "What the heck does all this have to do with the color of beef?"  Just stay with me because it is all a part of the process.

Just as the electric stimulation helps lock in meaty tenderness by creating ATP, the lactic acid lowers the meat's pH level.  More acidic beef results in a cherry-red coloring that we Americans have grown so accustomed to.  Darker meat is the result of higher pH (meaning it is more of a base than an acid).  As a result, our meats are red, tender, and slow to age.  What more could you possibly ask for?

So if you're one of those paranoid folks that thinks red meat is dyed to look better to consumers, check your sources.  I personally couldn't find any reliable information on that subject even though I tried really hard to do so.  And though most meat isn't dyed (some of it very well may be) then you can still lose your hair over the roughly 17.5 million pounds of dyes annually applied to the rest of our foods (Yeah, Trix, I am looking at you).  Instead of worrying about your meats just grab a steak, sit back, and know that your meat is 100% certified electrocuted goodness. Thanks Ben!

Dylan Rodgers is a writer with dreams of existential understanding and lyrical nonsense.  Share with him in the well of human experience

Photo: IwateBuddy

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