News of allergenic ingredients in Quorn, a popular meat substitute, has some vegetarians shaking in their pleather boots.
As reported by a recent flurry of articles, including an expository in the Wall Street Journal, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calling for the removal of Quorn from store shelves after receiving 65 complaints of consumers experiencing severe allergic reactions such as hives, anaphylactic shock, loss of consciousness, and vomiting so intense that blood vessels burst.
Although Quorn has been sold in the United States since 2002 and has gained somewhat of a cult following among vegetarians, I have never heard of the product—despite my meat-free diet. So what is Quorn exactly? And why are people having these intense reactions? Should it be pulled from shelves? Let’s take a trip back in time to examine the origins of Quorn.
What is Quorn?
In the 1960s, amid concerns of a projected huge spike in population growth, nutritionists and scientists began to search for an alternate form of food that would assuage mounting (although mistaken) concerns of protein shortage. Lo and behold, the answer materialized shortly later when a high-protein fungus called fusarium venenatum PTA 2684 was discovered growing in Marlow, Buckinhamshire.
Fast forward to 1985, when researchers fine-tuned the optimal way to produce the product on a large scale; still the same method used today. Water and glucose are poured into a fermenting tank. The fungus, along with nutrients like potassium, magnesium, and phosphate are added, and eventually coagulate to form solids—now called mycoprotein, and the primary component of Quorn.
According to Quorn’s website, mycoprotein is “the brand name of a premium line of all-natural, meat-free frozen foods.” Ingredients like egg whites, onions, canola oil, whey protein, tapioca starch, and pectin are added for flavor and texture to form products such as Chik’n Patties, Turk’y Roast, and other such cutesy titles that conjure images of baby chickens and turkeys scurrying about one of those bucolic farms depicted on butter packages.
Great nutritional profile, but unsafe to eat?
Admittedly, I’ve never tried Quorn, but after examining the nutrition label on a variety of products, it seems to be a commendable company. For example, the Naked Chik’n Cutlets have an exceptionally impressive nutritional profile: 1 cutlet (69 grams) provides 11 grams of protein, 80 calories, 5 mg cholesterol, 2.5 grams of fat, and 0.5 grams of sugar. In comparison, a hardboiled egg provides 6 grams of protein for 77 calories, 5 grams of fat, and a whopping 212 mg of cholesterol. What’s more, Quorn is dedicated to using non-GMO ingredients—always an appreciated attribute.
So while Quorn remains an acceptable (and purported delicious product) these benefits are certainly blunted if users have even a tiny chance of becoming fiercely ill. In it’s current state, Quorn packaging warns of common allergens such as egg, milk, and wheat. According to an article in Wired, one person in 146,000 will have an adverse reaction to Quorn, compared with an estimated one in 350 to soy—not a large risk at all.
But with pending label concerns so vehemently called for by a growing pool of citizens, such as the non-GMO Just Label It campaign, and mounting anxieties over products containing gluten, I suspect Quorn will be pressured to include a mycoprotein warning on their future packaging…at least one explaining that mycoprotein is indeed a fungus, and that severe allergic reactions have been documented. The Wall Street Journal reports that the current label reads “Mycoprotein is high in protein and fiber. This may cause intolerance in some people,” which is obviously somewhat of an understatement.
But while the thought of eating a potentially poisonous meat-like, non-meat fungus is positively unappetizing (although much more enticing then a factory-farmed slab of steak), I am now compelled to try Quorn… in a twisted Russian Roulette kind of way.