You’ve probably never heard of an amino acid called taurine, most likely because it is rarely mentioned in popular trade magazines or meat science textbooks. Nonetheless, taurine is an essential human nutrient that is abundant in beef and other meats, and provides an enormous benefit to omnivorous humans everywhere.
Unlike most other amino acids, taurine is not found as a component of protein but exists as a free amino acid in physiological fluids and cells of animals. Depending on species, taurine is the first or second most abundant free amino acid in skeletal muscles and the heart. In contrast to animal products, taurine is virtually absent from plants.
The importance of taurine hasn’t always been recognized. Until the early 1970s, taurine was thought to be a biochemically inert molecule. However, acritical role for taurine in nutrition for mammals was suggested in 1975 with the discovery that retinal degeneration occurs in taurine-deficient cats. In the same year, it was found that consumption of infant formula without taurine could result in cardiac and retinal dysfunction in preterm babies.
Both of these problems can be reversed by the addition of synthetic taurine to infant formula. It is now recognized that taurine plays major roles in human physiology and nutrition. The bottom line is that taurine benefits the cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, immune, muscular, neurological, reproductive and visual systems.
Compared with other animal species (cattle, chickens, pigs, and sheep, for example), humans have a low ability to synthesize taurine at any stage during development. That means children and adults fed taurine-free diets are deficient in taurine and could greatly benefit from supplementation with this nutrient. Additional research has shown that infants cannot produce a sufficient amount of taurine to meet physiological needs and must depend on a dietary source of taurine for optimal health, growth and development.
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Under stress or diseased conditions (heat stress, infection, obesity, diabetes, cancer and others), taurine synthesis in the body may be impaired due to the suboptimal function of liver and the reduced availability of the amino acid precursors. Notably, vegans generally have lower concentrations of taurine in plasma and red blood cells than their non-vegan counterparts. Taken together, these results suggest inadequate production of taurine by humans. Dietary requirements of taurine have not yet been established for adults.
Meat is a major dietary source of taurine for humans. A 3-oz. beef steak would provide 55 mg taurine, which would meet about 70% of daily taurine requirement by healthy adults. Because plants contain no taurine, abundant amounts of taurine from all kinds of meats demonstrate another important contribution that animal foods make to improving human health and well-being. It also further underscores the significance and importance of animal agriculture worldwide.
For more information on taurine research, contact Guoyao Wu at the Texas A&M University Department of Animal Science, [email protected].
Guoyao Wu is a distinguished professor of animal nutrition, a university faculty fellow and AgriLife Research faculty fellow. H. Russell Cross is a professor & head of the Texas A&M University Department of Animal Science.