Calcium and beef, not a combination that you hear paired together very often, but it is a very important combo! Calcium is important in beef as it helps make the meat tender. How does it do that you may ask? Well let me tell you…
All muscle contains enzymes, called calpains, that breakdown protein and are activated by calcium. These enzymes are important during life because they help remove any weak, or injured proteins in your muscles and let new, healthy protein be formed. Think about exercising. When you work out, your muscle fibers are injured and the protein that makes them up is damaged. Calpains help get rid of those injured proteins and let new, healthy proteins take their place, helping your muscles gain strength.
Postmortem, when this muscle has been converted to meat, those calpains are still active. The only difference is that meat no longer has energy available to rebuild the muscle. Calpains are busy breaking apart the protein, without new protein being formed. This continuous breakdown is what causes meat to be tender. Think about eating a steak. Did your mouth just water at the thought? If you have a whole steak and try to just take a big bite without first cutting it, it will probably be kind of tough to chew through. Cutting the steak across the grain into bite-sized pieces makes it much more tender and easier to chew. Calpains “cut” those fibers and break them down, leading to a more tender product.
Calcium is important because it is responsible for activating these enzymes. Without calcium, there would be no need to age beef, because the enzymes responsible for tenderness wouldn’t be active. The beef we consume would be much tougher than what we know it to be today. It is so crazy to me that although beef isn’t known to be a good source of calcium in our diet, it still requires calcium to create a palatable product.
While at University of Idaho, my research has been focused on finding a method to improve beef tenderness by activating calpains earlier postmortem. Basically, I am trying to find a way to make more calcium available to kick the enzymes into high gear! This project has kept me busy in the lab the past few months, but it has been so fun and exciting to see the data pour in. I am continually amazed at the amount of science that is involved in making a steak taste great, but it has been so much fun to be a part of the research!