Have you ever eaten something that looks and tastes like chicken and then discovered it’s actually not meat at all, but a new kind of vegetarian protein?
A journalist from Health24 was recently invited to the Quorn Dining Experience in Cape Town, where members of the media were able to taste-test this new product. The event was aimed at promoting the Quorn brand, recently launched in South Africa.
Read: Quorn in the spotlight over allergy alerts
Quorn offers a wide range of meat analogues: meat-free products made to resemble meat and chicken. These are extremely high in protein and produced entirely from mycoprotein, a type of fungus. They contain no soya.
What is mycoprotein?
Mycoprotein is a highly processed product, produced by means of a fermentation process, which starts off with a natural type of fungus, Fusarium venenatum.
The fungi are put into a fermentation vat where they are fed glucose, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, as well as vitamins, minerals and other secret ingredients.
These elements allow the fungi to grow while the vat is kept at a constant temperature.
Once it reaches its desired size, egg and seasoning are added to the mixture, which is cooked and turned into chunks.
It is then frozen, resulting in a structure resembling meat.
A brief history of Quorn
The idea for Quorn started in the 1960s, when it was feared food production wouldn’t be able to keep up with the expanding global population.
After approximately 21 years of research, in 1985 the first mycoprotein food was produced, leading to the creation of Quorn.
Quorn is particularly popular in the UK and in some parts of Europe, and has also expanded to Australia and America.
A healthier alternative to end world hunger?
Quorn is positioned as a healthier alternative to meat and is also aimed at people who want to lose weight.
According to Tim Finnigan, Quorn’s Director of Research and Development, Quorn’s main aims are to reduce pollution and end world hunger.
“The production of Quorn is more environmentally friendly than the production of meat, and it is much more efficient” says Finnigan.
One of the journalists attending the Cape Town event asked Finnegan that if Quorn aimed to end world hunger, why were their products aimed mainly at the middle classes instead of poorer people?
According to Finnigan, it was because they were still “assessing the situation”.
When Health24 asked Finnigan if Quorn products contained any chemicals or preservatives, he said that the products are entirely preservative-free, without any unhealthy chemicals.
In response to questions about what was used to make the food taste like chicken or meat, Finnigan replied: “Spices, herbs and natural extracts (such as vegetable extract) are used to flavour the food.”
Pros and cons of mycoprotein
Mycoprotein has many benefits because, in 1995, a small study conducted by researchers from King’s College at the University of London indicated that mycoprotein had a positive effect on the blood sugar and insulin levels of its study participants – an effect that could benefit type 2 diabetics and people with insulin resistance. Another small study, this time by researchers from Imperial College London, confirmed this potential benefit. However, more research is needed before any firm recommendations can be made.
It’s useful to note that mycoprotein contains high-quality protein (similar to that of skim milk), is low in energy, has a low unsaturated fat content, is cholesterol free and contains dietary fibre.
However, despite the pros, mycoprotein also has its fair share of cons. Many consumers claim to have experienced symptoms such as nausea and allergic reactions from mycoprotein products.
In fact, back in 2002, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban mycoprotein, including Quorn, because of complaints they were receiving.
Controversies around mycoprotein
In 2003, the CSPI collected around 500 complaints from Americans and 1 200 from European and Australian consumers.
Most complaints involved the symptoms some consumers experienced, such as vomiting and diarrhoea, while others reported symptoms of fainting, blood in the stools and severe allergic reactions.
The CSPI suggested that if the FDA refused to take Quorn products off the market, a warning label should be displayed on the Quorn product packaging, saying, “Warning: This product might cause severe diarrhoea or vomiting, or a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction; an allergy might develop only after consuming the product several times.”
David Wilson, Quorn's US general manager, responded to the CSPI's accusations, stating their claims were inaccurate and that they had always held a grudge against Quorn.
He further added that Quorn products have been tested thoroughly and approved by the relevant regulators in each country, and that each package has been appropriately labelled. Wilson also stated that the sensitivity rates to mycoproteins are much lower than those of other proteins such as soya, nuts, dairy and eggs.
The Vegetarian Society in the UK initially disapproved of Quorn products as it was confirmed that battery eggs were used in the production process. However, Quorn then changed the recipe to free-range eggs instead and their products were since approved by the UK vegetarian society. (For more information regarding this situation click here.)
According to an article published by BBC News Online in 2003 , a 41-year-old man suffered severe skin reactions, followed by an asthma attack an hour after consuming a Quorn product. Tests were carried out and it was discovered that he was allergic to mycoprotein.
Following this incident, a spokesperson for the Food Standard Agency in the UK (FSA) told the BBC News Online that immediate action would not be taken, as they would first need to assess the situation, and they would also need to compare it with the other issues and complaints about Quorn.
Since then, no feedback was provided from the FSA, although BBC News Online reported that the FSA made the following statement on their website regarding reactions to mycoprotein: “There have been some reports of intolerance to Quorn, but this is not surprising because it has a high protein content (allergens are usually proteins).”
According to a report published on the CSPI's website in 2003, Marlow foods, the company that distributed Quorn products throughout Europe up to 2011, provided statistics showing that 1 in 146 000 people who consumed mycoprotein were prone to reactions, which is a small number compared to the 1 in 35 who consumed soya.
Some people are allergic to ingredients like gluten, while others are not – and the same applies to mycoprotein.
Despite the controversies and some negative reactions, Quorn remains extremely popular, especially in the UK. Furthermore, there have not been any significant complaints or controversies about Quorn since 2004.
However, there are still some questions that remain. For example, would mycoprotein be a viable option if the planet ever ran out of food, and could it be a great tool to end world hunger?
Another important question is how this product will be received in South Africa. Why not try it and see – and let us know what you think.