Wednesday 29th January 2020

Quorn, meat substitute

Mycoprotein, the first new food in over a century

  • How a microscopic plant was discovered

Its taste is vaguely reminiscent of mushrooms, its texture is that of liver or tender meat. It's Quorn, child of the marriage between biotechnology and gastronomy.

Of vegetable origin, a distant relative of mushrooms, its technical name is mycoprotein (from the Greek mycos, fungus).

Fusarium Venenatum (previously thought to be a strain of Fusarium Graminearum), a microscopic plant living in the rich soil of the Thames Valley in England, is the source of the first food really new that mankind has discovered in 140 years, i.e. since the invention of margarine.

In 1968 Ranks Hovis McDougall, a giant of the British food industry, was trying to solve what was then one of the world's greatest nutrition problems: lack of proteins. Traditional protein sources, meat and fish, would probably become scarce; whereas carbohydrates, which are found in grains, roots and vegetables, were abundant.

The challenge was finding a way to turn carbohydrates into protein skipping a link in the food chain, that is without having to go through the animals.

The solution was discovered in a tiny and until then ignored relative of the mushroom. A microscopic plant which feeds on carbohydrates and is made of easily assimilable protein and fibre.

If it always existed, why had it never been used? Because in its natural state it's so small to escape attention. It took about twenty years from its discovery to its utilization, the time necessary to understand how it naturally develops and to provide the conditions for its growth.

This plant's method of controlled cultivation is a process of liquid fermentation, occurring thanks to the action of glucose derived from starch and to the addition of some minerals and of ammonia as a source of nitrogen.

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The food derived from this, christened "Quorn", has the ability to absorb the flavours and aromas of the herbs, spices and sauces with which it is cooked. You can slice it or dice it, freeze it or dehydrate it, and prepare it as main ingredient in a variety of dishes: casseroles, pies, quiches, lasagne, burgers, steaks, stews, grilled dishes, baked dishes and so on.

The texture is the most singular and unique characteristic of the new food. The fibre it contains makes it seem like meat in both looks and taste but, obviously, there is no shadow of fats, nerves or bones.

For this reason, it is presented on the British market (and more recently other European markets and the United States) as a valid meat substitute not only in nutrition terms but also in gastronomic terms, and as one of the best high fibre foods.

The company producing Quorn, Marlow Foods (named after Marlow, in Buckinghamshire, the town on the river Thames near which it was discovered), sells it both directly to the public and to the food manufacturers which use it in their Quorn products, such as packaged meals.

Quorn is found in almost all English supermarkets and in many restaurants. It is used in ready meals inspired to the most diverse culinary traditions: from Indian curries to white wine sauces, from Ratatouille to Genève Supreme, from Chinese recipes to Escalopes with Marsala Sauce.

Quorn can give the same satisfaction of the best game, bacon, ham, chicken or beef, but with the advantage that it is healthier because it does not contain animal fat but as much fibre as you can find in fresh vegetables claim the advertisements.

Nonsense, reply the critics. Ethical Consumer magazine, devoted to consumer choices as a form of ethico-political pressure, described Quorn when it was launched as the umpteenth product of advanced biotechnologies, a laboratory food which, although trumpeted as healthy and genuine, does not have much of natural any more.

Beyond the controversy, it must be acknowledged that Quorn has all the qualities to be welcomed by consumers in England. It goes in the direction recommended by the health authorities, and meets the market requirements of both the big supermarket chains, involved in the race about who is most capable of satisfying the demands of the so-called green consumerism, and of the food industry looking for novelties.

Don't let's forget that the British Medical Association has recommended that the UK population should cut by 29% their total fat intake, cut by 40% their consumption of saturated fats (found mostly in animal products), and to increase by 50% their fibre foods intake.

What better than the "new vegetable meat" for the needs of a country where between 7% and 11% of the adult population are vegetarian and several animal foods have been subjects of food scandals and scares?


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