Monday, June 27, 2011

Meatless Monday: Addicted to Quorn

Yes, I’m addicted to Quorn. You heard me. That’s Quorn with a “Q.” Not exactly addicted, but I got your attention, didn’t I?

And now that I have it, let me tell you about Quorn. If you cruise the grocery store aisles as I do, looking for new things to try, you may have spotted this product in the frozen natural food section, near the veggie burgers. It comes in several varieties — Meatballs, Chik’n Nuggets, and Chik’n Tenders. Meatless and soy-free, Quorn is low in fat, high in protein, and has the taste and texture of the meat it is approximating. It does not have any GMO ingredients, but it is not organic, and is not exactly natural. It’s imported from the UK, so its footprint is pretty large. But as fake meat goes, it’s oh so tasty, which makes it one of my guilty pleasures.

Quorn is a little complicated to explain. Quorn’s packages originally used the words “mushroom protein,” but the company was forced to change the label to read: “made from nutritious myco-protein.” Myco is Greek for “fungi.”

The specific fungus chosen for development for the myco-protein in Quorn is Fusarium venenatum, discovered growing in a field in Buckinghamshsire in the 1960s. According to a 2005 article in Britain’s Independent, the discovery was part of “an ultimately abortive race against time to produce artificial protein before population growth overtook natural resources and created global famine.”

Instead, the discovery ultimately became part of a convenience food phenomenon in Great Britain, highly popular with omnivores as well as vegetarians (although not vegans since Quorn also contains egg whites). In 2005, it was estimated that one in five UK households ate Quorn each year, and Quorn was the leading brand in Britain’s meat-free food market. 

I still haven’t told you how Quorn is made, and I confess I only found out the details while working on this post.  This abstract of a 2002 scientific paper explains it better than I can:  “Myco-protein is produced in two 150,000 l pressure-cycle fermenters in a continuous process which outputs around 300 kg biomass/h.…after reduction of the RNA content, the fungal biomass is mixed with egg albumin and made into a variety of products.” 

In a so far futile lobbying campaign against the product, the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest has been collecting complaints about Quorn since it first appeared in the US in 2002. According to the Independent article referenced earlier, “The lobby group claims it recorded more than 800 cases of allergic reactions but Britain's Food Standards Agency puts the rate of allergy at one in 146,000 people, compared to one in 3,000 for soya products.” It is also not clear how many of the adverse reactions occur because of an allergy to eggs. 

Despite the fact that I cannot get the image of a giant petri dish out of my mind at the moment, and CSPI’s claims, and Quorn's big carbon footprint, I’m still hooked. It all started with  Quorn meatballs which taste so much better than wheatballs or soyballs. They satisfy my craving for meatballs when I don’t want to eat [or prepare] the real thing. As Sara Dickerman wrote in Slate, “In the world of simulated meat, Quorn is king.” 

Last night I used the Chik’n Tenders in a faux Sweet and Sour Chicken dish. I made my own sauce from a recipe I found through Google with Recipe View, stirfried onions, peppers, and snow peas (from the farmers’ market); baked the Quorn as instructed; and then mixed everything together and served it over rice. It was quick, convenient, pretty tasty, and I didn’t have to worry about salmonella. 

Quorn will likely remain as the latest fermented staple to join my usual grocery list, along with items including beer, blue cheese, bread, tempeh, and wine. That is unless my husband protests after reading the full story behind Quorn. He’s been with me so far…

Have a good week, and please come back soon for more food facts and my latest edible discoveries.

I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal  health and the health of our planet.”

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