Is the meatlike mold in Quorn really a ‘healthier’ alternative?

Posted by
May 30, 2013

Of all the food additives and strange-sounding ingredients readers have asked us about here at Food Identity Theft, the oddest of all has to be mycoprotein, sold under the brand name Quorn.

Mycoprotein is not a mushroom, but a type of microscopic mold-fungi called Fusarium venenatum that is fermented in a giant tank, fed with oxygenated water, glucose and other ingredients, and then further heavily processed into a variety of “food-like” substances such as fake chicken and meat.

If you just look at the Quorn packaging or web site you would think that mycoprotein is the greatest culinary creation since flour from grain, a “natural” meatless way to “eat healthier” that was first discovered in the 1960s during a search for novel sources of protein to feed the world.

But there’s more to the mycoprotein/Quorn story than that.

Great Britain’s answer to Olestra?

First served up to consumers in the United Kingdom in 1985, after being tested to “determine if it was fit for human consumption,” according to the company, Quorn mycoprotein made it ‘across the pond’ to the U.S. around 2001. By the following year it had reached the attention of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which called it possibly “…the FDA’s worst blunder since Olestra,” (a fat substitute that caused, among other things, a condition dubbed “anal leakage”).

In 2002 CSPI was urging the Food and Drug Administration to take Quorn products off the market and set up a web site, quorncomplaints.com, which has collected almost two thousand adverse reaction reports from consumers ranging from hives, vomiting and diarrhea to life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

“Here we have brand-new foods made with an ingredient never before eaten in the United States,”
CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson said at the time. But “(i)nstead of undergoing careful reviews, this fungus food was waved into the American food supply with only a cursory governmental review.”

While this may look like your typical fast-food nugget, these are made from mycoprotein, a microscopic mold-fungi called Fusarium venenatum.

And, in fact, the FDA “waved in” mycoproteins in 2002 as a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) ingredient, even while the manufacturer’s 1986 petition to have the mold declared a “food additive” by the agency was still under evaluation (where it remains to this day).

Not giving up, CSPI filed a class-action lawsuit in Connecticut against the company in 2009 on behalf of a consumer who was made ill by Quorn’s Chik’n Patties, and was quoted as saying, “I felt like the soles of my feet were going to come out of my mouth, I was vomiting so hard.” The case was dismissed, with the judge noting that the “possibility of FDA action preempts state laws.”

But despite yet another request by CSPI in 2011 to the FDA to take the product off the market, or, at the very least, include a warning on the Quorn packaging to the effect that “this product might cause severe diarrhea or vomiting, or a life-threating anaphylactic reaction…” Quorn products have remained on  store shelves with a low-key notice on the back of the package saying, “mycoprotein is high in protein and fiber. This may cause intolerance in some people.”

How do you spell ‘queasy’?

Quorn, a subsidiary of the UK company Marlow Foods (which until 2003 was part of  pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca), says on its web site that merely one in 100,000, or  perhaps one in 200,000 “will react badly to the protein in Quorn products,” and that by “contrast…one in 50 and one in 200 people” will react badly to soy, nuts, shellfish, dairy and eggs.

But CSPI says that’s not the case, and that way back in 1977, an unpublished study “conducted by Quorn’s developer found that 10 percent of 200 test subjects who ate the fungus experienced nausea, vomiting, or other gastrointestinal symptoms…” and that “CSPI found that almost five percent of Quorn eaters experienced adverse reactions. That was a higher percentage of people than those who reported allergies to shellfish, milk, peanuts or other common food allergens,” the group said.

Another mycoprotein issue — and a problem in scores of other processed foods — is the presence of undeclared processed free glutamic acid (MSG), a result of the protein fermentation process. Manufactured glutamic acid is the substance responsible for triggering the numerous adverse reactions often associated with monosodum glutamate, ranging from skin rashes and asthma attacks to mood swings, upset stomach, migraines, heart irregularities and seizures.

CSPI advises that consumers have numerous meat substitutes available that are made with “real food ingredients,” saying in its 2011 letter to the FDA that “We believe, and we suspect that any reasonable person would believe, that any novel food ingredient that causes hives, anaphylactic reactions, or vomiting so violent that blood vessels burst, cannot, indeed must not, be considered by the FDA to be ‘generally recognized as safe…”

All of which makes us wonder whether what’s needed here (as in similar cases) is simply another FDA designation called GRAR — “generally recognized as risky.”