The Quorn brand was launched in 1985 and is sold in 16 countries all over the world, and according to the manufacturer, more than 500 000 Quorn meals are eaten in the UK every day.
In November 2013 Quorn products were launched in South Africa. The company offers a range of meat-free products, ranging from “Mince” to “Chicken style pieces” that appear to be selling steadily in a number of local supermarket chains.
What exactly is in Quorn?
Quorn products are made from a mycoprotein, fusarium venenatum, a fungus which is was discovered in the 1960s. This is grown in a fermentation vat with the help of glucose, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, vitamins, minerals and other undisclosed ingredients.
Read: Fight disease with fermented foods
Once the desired volume has been achieved, eggs and seasoning are added. This mixture is cooked, made into chunks and then frozen, and ends up looking and tasting (more or less) like meat.
Quorn products are vegetarian and contain no genetically modified organisms (GMO-free), but because they contain small amounts of egg, they are not vegan.
One of the reasons mycoprotein was developed in the first place was to counter projected food shortages because of the rapid growth of the world’s population.
For a variety of reasons the expected worldwide food shortage never materialised, but the increase in the number of vegetarians in recent times has meant that Quorn products have become a popular source of protein.
Some environmental benefits of Quorn mycoprotein:
- Producing mycoprotein requires much less land and water than animal protein.
- The production of greenhouse emissions is considerably lower.
Health benefits of Quorn mycoprotein:
- Mycoprotein is high in protein and low in fat and therefore good for dieters.
- Some studies suggest that mycoprotein may lower bad (LDL) cholesterol.
- Mycoprotein is low in sugars and also appears to have a low glycaemic response, which makes it ideal for diabetics.
- It is also cholesterol free and contains a good amount of dietary fibre.
- Quorn products are a good source of selenium and zinc.
Image: Quorn meat-free ready meals manufactured by Quorn Foods on display in a chiller cabinet at the company's factory in Stokesley, UK, on Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Photographer: Nigel Roddis/Bloomberg via Getty Images
- Quorn products are preservative free and do not contain harmful chemicals
It must be noted that Quorn products are made not from mushrooms, but from a fungus (think Candida), which may put some people off. Also, the Latin name for the fungus used to make Quorn products is fusarium venenatum – and the word venenatum means “venomous” or “poisonous”, which also doesn't inspire much confidence.
Admittedly the above considerations are somewhat subjective, but there are some legitimate concerns regarding the safety and desirability of ingesting fusarium venenatum.
In a controlled clinical study, conducted by the company that developed Quorn, 10 percent of the 200 test subjects who ate Quorn products suffered from stomach ache, nausea or vomiting, compared to five percent of 100 subjects of a control group.
Enter the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit watchdog and consumer advocacy group that advocates safer and more healthful foods.
The group has been logging complaints about Quorn foods since 2001 and has received reports from people with complaints about allergic reactions, hives, breathing difficulties, nausea, projectile vomiting and even anaphylactic shock.
On their website it is stated that they have heard from more than 2 000 consumers in Europe and the United States who have suffered reactions to Quorn. It also lists research into the health dangers of Quorn.
At the same time, research conducted in Europe suggests that about 1 in 100 000 to 200 000 people will react to mycoprotein.
The British Food Standards Authority said in 2002 that Quorn is safe to eat and that it's "important to recognise that several commonly consumed foods and food ingredients have much higher intolerance levels than this. For example, the intolerance to soya is reported to be 1 in 300 and that to shellfish, even higher."
It is suggested that, because it's made from a fungus, it's possible that some people who react to other fungi or moulds may have a similar reaction to mycoprotein.
The Washington Post reports that the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contacted hundreds of people that the advocacy centre sent to them and in 2012 wrote to the group agreeing that "individuals may experience adverse reactions” to Quorn products and that a “food allergy cannot be ruled out".
However, the FDA officials said they believed "most of these reactions are due to non-life threatening food intolerance".
Read: 5 foods that could kill you
Mycoprotein is generally safe to eat
Mycoprotein has been categorised as GRAS by the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means that it is generally recognised as safe.He also mentioned that the allergic reaction to mycoproteins is much lower than other proteins like shellfish, eggs, soya, nuts and dairy products.
The CSPI is however currently putting pressure on the FDA to revoke Quorn’s GRAS status, or at least to force the company to put warning labels on its products.
David Wilson, Quorn's US general manager, responded to the CSPI's accusations, stating their claims were inaccurate and added that Quorn products have been thoroughly tested and approved, and that packages are appropriately labelled.
Others have suggested that the high fibre could induce a food intolerance reaction and that we should remember that the product does contain other known allergens such as egg, milk and gluten.
Read: Common allergens
Image: An employee watches as meat-free Quorn sausages, manufactured by Quorn Foods, a unit of Exponent Private Equity LLP, travel along the production line ahead of freezing at the company's factory in Stokesley, UK, on Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Photographer: Nigel Roddis/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Closer to home, the public reaction to a Health24 article published in November 2013 was varied:
- On 12 November 2013 Chris Le Roux posted: “As a vegetarian I am so stoked to have this available; tastes great!”
- Avril Powrie strongly disagreed and wrote the following: “Sorry to burst your bubbles guys, but Quorn is nothing but Frankenfood; it's going to make you sick. I saw this stuff in the UK 2 years ago; wouldn't touch it.”
- Alex Parkins, posting on 13 November 2013 also wasn't impressed: “I was a vegetarian for more than 13 years. I tried Quorn in the UK and my body rejected it. It felt as though someone had poisoned me. Besides, how can something so processed and refined be good for a body? Natural is best.
Decide for yourself
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so why don’t you go out, buy a Quorn product and decide for yourself. Also, the only way to find out if you have an allergic reaction to mycoprotein is to try it. If you feel bad after eating it, be sure to see a health care professional.
Statistically the chances of an adverse reaction to the product aren’t that high, but at least you’ve been warned!
Managing food allergies
Protein facts for vegetarians
Osteoporosis risk for vegetarians
Image: Soy Free, Meat Free Gruyere Cheese Schnitzels from Quorn.co.za