Defending Quorn

It’s made of fungus, but it’s the best fake meat we’ve got.

When I read that the nutritional muckrakers at the Center for Science in the Public Interest had filed a lawsuit against the manufacturer of Quorn, a line of frozen meat substitutes, and its biggest U.S. retailer, Whole Foods, I knew I had to try some. If the grouches over at CSPI hate it, you know it’s got to be good. After all, the “food watchdog” group has made a name for itself trashing the likes of movie popcorn, fettuccine alfredo, and General Tso’s chicken.

Their beef with Quorn is almost as obscure as the origins of the meatlike product. As a New York Times article published this week explains, Quorn is “a new kind of food…made from a fungus called fusarium venenatum that was discovered by British scientists in a soil sample in 1967.” The fungus is cultured in steel tanks and then combined with other ingredients to make simulation “meatballs,” “cutlets,” “tenders,” and “grounds.” CSPI makes much of the lowly fungal origin of Quorn, comparing it to mildew and mold and arguing that the maker confuses consumers by comparing the substance to more chic fungi like truffles and morels. This is unconvincing: Aren’t moldy cheeses, fermented sausages, and wild mushrooms—which so often conceal little ants and worms—all a little gross if you think too much about how they get made? Isn’t beef?

CPSI is seeking labels on the products warning that its “mycoprotein,” which is not a traditional food source, can cause allergic reactions. CPSI has been trolling for Quorn horror stories and has pulled together 800 complaints from people who have had digestive and, even more occasionally, respiratory problems after eating Quorn products, which have been sold in the United States since 2002. The complaints certainly seem unpleasant—people cite diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea, and there is one poor soul who finds post-Quorn that he or she has “very little notice to answer the call to stool.” But anecdotes like this are hard to read for more than one reason. After all, Quorn products contain nonfungal ingredients, too, including egg whites and flour, which are also known allergens—so it’s hard to tell if people’s sensitivities are generated by the mycoprotein or other elements of the meal.

Certainly, the edible world is rife with pitfalls. I know that if I eat more than a bite of ice cream, I will have gastronomical heck to pay, but I bear no grudge against Ben or Jerry. I expect no label from them other than a thorough ingredient list, and I suppose a nutritional breakdown.

Last night I supped on Quorn “Meatballs” and pasta and woke up this morning to a crispy, crunchy Quorn “chicken patty.” The meatballs have a passably meatlike texture, flecked with recognizable bits of onion. Their flavor, while unremarkable, is no worse than that of the average semi-industrial meatball. The chicken patty has a great crisp crust and a pleasant chew and avoids the telltale bounce of soy and gluten meat substitutes. Sure, it has a slightly uric odor, but that’s nothing compared with the toxic flavor of most soy “meat” products. In the world of simulated meat, Quorn is king. Faint praise indeed.