Love them or hate them, so-called “mock meats” and “faux meats” are gaining in popularity.
Some have hinted that the world must, and will, forgo eating animal foods in favour of products derived from soy and similar if we are to save the planet and the environment. That’s a whole other discussion though.
In this post, I’ll review one of the lesser-known versions of meat alternatives available to consumers; Quorn vegan and Quorn products.
What is Quorn?
Quorn is made from mycoprotein and Quorn is the only registered trademark brand of animal protein alternatives that are made from a unique protein source, mycoprotein. So what is mycoprotein you might be asking?
Mycoprotein is a fungus-derived protein, in this case from Fusarium venenatum, an ascomycete, a type of fungus that grows in the soil. Myco is derived from the Greek root word for fungus.
Thinking back to your high school biology class, fungi are a separate kingdom to plants and animals which not only includes mushrooms, but also a large variety of micro-fungi species such as Fusarium venenatum and yeasts!
What would likely surprise most people is that mycoprotein is not new. It was first discovered in England in the 1960s and the first mycoprotein-based product was available in 1985.
How is mycoprotein made?
To make mycoprotein, the fungus is fermented – the same process to make beer, wine, kefir, bread, and yogurt. This process claims to produce a meat alternative that has a closer taste and texture to meat versus other plant-based proteins (R).
Fusarium venenatum is fed carbohydrate (as are other yeasts etc when making fermented products) derived from corn and wheat along with water and various essential salts, in a fermenter. The fermenters are 40 meter high containers that run continuously for 5 weeks at a time.
Once the organism has begun to grow, its fed continuously with glucose (carbohydrate), ammonium (as a nitrogen source to make protein), potassium, magnesium, and phosphate.
When the fermentation process is finished, the liquid is separated by centrifugation which leaves behind the mycoprotein paste or ‘dough’. This dough-like material resembles bread dough which is then used in a variety of ways to make Quorn products. Once the paste is available, it is then seasoned and mixed with a little egg, or for vegan products, a plant-derived protein to help bind the mix.
This seasoned ‘dough’ is then cooked for about 30 minutes, and chilled, before being used as an ingredient in all Quorn products [Quorn sausages, Quorn nuggets, Quorn burgers, Quorn chicken, and more].
Is eating fungi safe?
The short answer is yes. We’ve been eating fungi for a very long time and they’re found in everyday foods such as aged cheeses, bread, nutritional yeast, yeast spreads like Marmite or Vegemite, soy sauce, cured foods like salami, kombucha, and more. Certain fungi species also make up part of your healthy gut bacteria population or your microbiota.
According to Quorn Nutrition’s website, mycoprotein’s claim to fame is that it’s high in protein on a per-serving basis, it’s a complete protein (meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids), it’s high in fiber, low in total fat (which I couldn’t care less about), contains no cholesterol (again, a non-issue for me), and is a source of key nutrients such as choline, selenium, and zinc.
Per the nutrient analysis on Quorn’s website, mycoprotein is a source of vitamin B2 (riboflavin), folate (vitamin B9), vitamin B12, phosphorus, zinc, choline, and manganese. The link above that provides information on mycoprotein’s micronutrient profile, is for the mycoprotein paste or dough on a per 100 g basis. It does have some impressive numbers:
- 85 kcal
- 11 g protein
- 3 g carbohydrate
- 6 g fiber
- 114 mcg folate
- 0.71 mcg vitamin B12
- 290 mg phosphorus
- 50 mg magnesium
- 7.6 mg zinc
- 4.9 mg manganese
- 20 mcg selenium (R)
Despite stating it’s a source of B2 and choline, the amounts aren’t that notable; just 0.26 mg of B2 and 180 mcg (0.18 mg) of choline per 100 g. Choline is a nutrient most aren’t getting enough of but the estimated requirements are at a minimum, in the 425-550 mg per day range for adults (but research is showing it’s likely at least 50% higher). Mycoprotein’s 0.18 mg of choline per 100 g serving is a sad contribution indeed.
Per their nutritional analysis, mycoprotein is also very low in calcium (48 mg), chromium (0.45 mcg), potassium (71 mg), iron (0.39 mg), and vitamin B6 (0.1 mg).
Are Quorn products nutritious?
This is where it can get a bit tricky if that’s the word. Quorn’s website lists what I call typical two-dimensional nutritional facts, providing both width and breadth but no depth; in other words, it’s lacking the more nuanced nutritional information that would help consumers make a more informed choice. You’ll find the usual suspects of calories, fat, carbs, fiber, protein, and sodium on the nutrition listing but that’s it.
What’s not listed are the amounts of the various micronutrients that Quorn boasts mycoprotein to have.
While they list the nutrient content of 100 g of mycoprotein paste, only part of that paste is used to make the various products. Other ingredients are used because obviously, the mycoprotein itself isn’t suitable, it needs a little help. Take the ingredient list, pictured below, for the Hot & Spicy Burgers as an example.
Because the burgers, in this example, only contain 58% mycoprotein as an ingredient, the amount of nutrients provided in the 100 g reference gets ‘diluted’, AND the 58% of mycoprotein that goes into these burgers is further reduced given that the box weight of 264 g is the weight for 4 burgers. Each burger is 66 g, and the nutritional information on calories, fat, carbs, fiber, protein, and sodium is based on 100 g.
Therefore one Hot and Spicy burger provide:
- 140 kcal
- 5.7 g fat
- 13.2 g carb
- 2.24 g fiber
- 7.3 g protein
- and a fraction of the micronutrients listed in their 100 g reference: Quorn Micronutrient Profile
The same ‘math’ applies to all of their products as varying amounts of mycoprotein are used in different products.
How good is mycoprotein quality?
Protein contains 20 amino acids, the building blocks that make-up all bodily proteins. Nine of these are considered ‘essential’ or ‘indispensable’ amino acids because they cannot be made by the body and must be provided by the diet. All foods have protein but there are some foods that are more protein-rich than others.
The major food sources of protein include animal-based (beef, pork, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, etc), and plant-based (pulses [chickpeas, lentils, dried peas, and beans], soy, nuts, and seeds) foods. Any discussion about dietary protein needs to consider the amount of protein per serving, and the quality of that protein.
Limiting amino acids are essential amino acids in digested protein that are in shortest supply relative to body requirements. If a minimum amount of an essential amino acid is not met, it limits the food’s ability to provide the body with an ideal amount of amino acids for protein synthesis.
The determinants of protein quality are:
- The impact of limiting amino acids, especially the essential amino acids (e.g. is there enough of a limiting amino acid even if the food contains all 9 essential amino acids?)
- Digestibility (the amount of ingested amino acids that are absorbed)
- Bioavailability (how much of the limiting amino acid is available for health)
So, it’s not enough to just look at the total amount of protein in a serving of food without considering its amino acid profile. For example, 2 cups of cooked spaghetti have 16 g of protein (total amount) but because wheat is low in lysine (an essential amino acid), the overall quality is poor compared to the protein in an egg. Also, the digestibility of wheat protein is also poorer compared to an egg.
Just because a food has all nine essential amino acids, doesn’t mean that food contains the essential amino acids in sufficient amounts.
According to an article in Current Developments of Nutrition (R), mycoprotein is rich in essential amino acids (EAA). Its EAA profile as a percentage of total protein is 41%, similar to spirulina but unlike spirulina which has a typical serving size of 1/2 to 1 tsp (in smoothies, etc), more mycoprotein is used in food products providing more protein, and therefore EAA per serving than spirulina does.
To assess the effect of mycoprotein ingestion on blood levels of EAA and branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), two classes of amino acids that are crucial to muscle protein synthesis, a study of 12 healthy young males was conducted to investigate this (R). The blood concentrations of both EAA and BCAA was assessed in the fasting state, and at regular time intervals for 4 hours after subjects consumed either 20 g of milk protein (MLK20) as a reference and varying amounts of mycoprotein; 20 g (MYC20), 40 g (MYC40), 60 g (MYC60), and 80 g (MYC80).
Compared to milk, mycoprotein resulted in a slower but more sustained increase in blood concentrations of amino acids in a dose-dependent manner; consuming more mycoprotein result in a great concentration of amino acids but there was some evidence of a plateau with intakes of 60-80 g in young healthy men.
Mycoprotein ingestion resulted in equivalent 4-hour post-consumption availability of total amino acids, EAA, and non-EAA, as well as BCAAs.
Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS)
The PDCAAS is a method for the measurement of protein value in humans. Assessing protein quality takes into account the amino acid profile, it’s digestibility, and its ability to supply essential amino acids in amounts required for health (R).
While the PDCAAS is adopted as the measurement of choice by the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 1993, it is considered less accurate than the DIAAS (Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score) rating system. However, Quorn doesn’t appear to have a DIAAS rating to consider.
Nevertheless, mycoprotein has a PDCAAS rating of 0.99. Compared to:
- milk at 1.0
- whey protein at 1.0
- casein (milk protein) at 1.0
- soy protein concentrate at 1.0
- chicken at 0.95
- beef at 0.92
- pea protein concentrate (isolate) at 0.89
- chickpeas and edamame at 0.78
- black beans at 0.75
- hemp seeds at 0.66
- cereals, cooked at 0.59
- peanuts at 0.52
- rice at 0.50
- dried fruits at 0.48
- whole wheat at 0.42
- wheat gluten at 0.25
Mycoprotein stands up better than common plant-based foods and is on par with many animal proteins which by their very nature have all 9 EAA and in amounts needed to support and maintain health.
Getting enough total protein and optimal protein quality
In order to get the most out of protein, it’s important to include protein-rich food sources at each meal. This can include a variety of both plant and animal foods. Many do that anyway without thinking about it: oatmeal and milk, poached eggs on toast, almond butter, and toast, and a boiled egg for example.
When animal foods are included, the protein quality of a meal is easily rounded out and improved as the animal foods will have enough EAA to make up for any lacking in the plant foods. With vegan diets, it can be achieved as well but with a little more attention.
This is where the idea of complementary proteins (amino acids) comes from. Getting two or more plant-based, protein-rich foods [legumes, soy, nuts, seeds, and whole grains) at each meal will help ensure you’re getting enough total protein with sufficient amounts of EAA.
Is it just about protein though?
As with other faux animal foods such as JUST Eggs, the Impossible Burger by Burger King or the Beyond Burger by A&W, I feel there’s more to consider than just the protein content when comparing them to animal-based foods. It’s important to go beyond the surface, especially when it comes to using Nutrition Facts Tables and their two-dimensional information on calories, fat, protein, carbs, etc.
A perfect example of this is with JUST Eggs. It’s true the mung bean-derived egg product has the same amount of total protein compared to the real thing (each respective serving has 6 g of protein) but JUST Eggs protein quality leaves a lot to be desired. Not only that, it’s offers nothing else; devoid of nutrients, unlike a real chicken egg which is loaded with essential vitamins and minerals (see my post above for more detail).
This is where Quorn misses the mark for me as well. As I mentioned, there are decent amounts of a handful of nutrients in 100 g of the mycoprotein paste/dough but because Quorn products are only partially mycoprotein, for the most part, the nutrient profile is lacking compared to other plant-based, protein-rich foods such as legumes, soy, and pseudo-grains such as quinoa.
What are the health benefits of mycoprotein?
Beyond being just a vegetarian source of protein, mycoprotein has been shown to have many health benefits. These include improving nutrition-related risk factors for several chronic conditions that are on the rise in Western societies.
Like oats, mycoprotein contains a special type of carbohydrate (in the form of fiber) called beta-glucan. Beta-glucan helps to support the immune system, 80% of which is found in the digestive tract (R, R).
Given mycoprotein’s fiber content, it may reduce symptoms of IBD (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s) during times of remission, as well as improve digestive health. This is because fiber helps to fuel the cells of the digestive tract but supporting the production of short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate (R).
Fiber has long been promoted for weight loss support. Why? Because whole foods that have a lot of fiber are referred to as “self-limiting” meaning that they increase a sense of fullness and satiety given their ‘bulky’ nature. Protein and fat also have satiety-promoting properties and when eaten with fiber, are what I refer to as the golden triad for satiety. However, even getting two of the three can help with appetite control.
Quorn foods, because of their mycoprotein content, provide a decent amount of fiber and protein thereby supporting satiety. A study that looked at the effect of mycoprotein on energy intake (calories), appetite regulation and metabolic measures in overweight and obese subjects found that eating Quorn at lunch resulted in study subjects eating an average of 18% fewer calories at the following dinner compared to those eating equal amounts of protein from chicken (R).
Mycoprotein may also positively impact appetite-regulating hormones such as glucagon-like peptide (GLP-1), and peptide YY (PYY) (R)
May lower blood sugar in diabetes
Whether it’s Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, elevated levels of insulin and blood sugar are the reasons for the damage that’s, unfortunately, a part of having diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Anything that can help to lower blood sugar levels after eating (lower-carb diets, supplements, functional foods), as well as insulin levels throughout the day and after eating, will help to mitigate the risk of cardiovascular disease, kidney failure, nerve damage, and blindness.
In a study on healthy individuals, mycoprotein was able to reduce glucose spikes by 13% after drinking a milkshake and was able to reduce insulin spikes by 36% [R]. The beta-glucan type of fiber in Quorn may reduce the absorption of carbohydrates in the body thereby reducing post-prandial (after eating blood sugar spikes) [R].
As a functional food (foods that have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition such as vitamins, minerals, fat, etc. Proponents of functional foods say they promote optimal health and help reduce the risk of disease), Quorn and its mycoprotein content can help those with metabolic disorders, and hyperinsulinemia including pre-diabetes and diabetes.
Forty years have established beta-glucans role in modulating the immune system from both animal and human studies (R).
Research has shown a positive impact on immune function and associated inflammation by beta-glucan which has been shown to stimulate humoral and cellular immunity, stimulate wound healing, reduce psychological stress (possibly from immune-related increased inflammation), mitigate chronic fatigue syndrome, and inhibit the development of cancer (R).
Mycoprotein such as Quorn is rich in both beta-glucan and chitin (1.5 g of chitin and 4 g of beta-glucan) (R).
Balance blood lipids
While there’s a lot of research on oats-based beta-glucan, and other dietary fibers and their ability to lower cholesterol, there’s limited research with mycoprotein (R).
In one study, subjects with mildly elevated cholesterol levels were able to see a reduction with the consumption of mycoprotein after 8 weeks [R]. In another study, subjects saw a 9% reduction in LDL cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol increased by 13% [R].
While more research is definitely needed specifically on mycoprotein and its ability to balance blood fats, there is a suggestion of mycoprotein being able to support healthy blood lipids.
Is Quorn gluten-free?
Gluten-free living is a consideration for anyone with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Some of Quorn’s products are gluten-free, most aren’t, but those that include:
- Quorn Meatless Pieces
- Quorn Meatless Filets
- Quorn Meatless Roast
- Quorn Meatless Sweet Apple Sausage
- Quorn Meatless Turk’y Roast
Is Quorn an allergy risk?
Any protein source is potentially an allergy risk. Unlike the other top 11 common food allergies, mycoprotein allergy seems to have a low prevalence, about 1 in every 100,00o to 200,000 people. Those with sensitivities to molds, fungi, or mushrooms should avoid Quorn products.
There are several self-reported cases of mycoprotein allergies and it’s important to note, that some Quorn products contain many common food allergens such as egg and wheat (R).
Is Quorn vegan?
When mycoprotein was first developed, a small amount of egg albumin was added as a binder at the end of processing. Initially, Quorn foods could not be classed as vegan. However, recent breakthroughs in food technology and science are no allowing an increasing proportion of the Quorn products to be sold without egg and these have received approval from various vegan societies and certification organizations. Be sure to read the ingredient lists and search for their vegan products on their website.
Quorn vegan products
Quorn’s vegan line includes:
- Breaded Fishless Fillets
- Ultimate Burgers
- Vegan Battered Fishless Fillets
- Vegan Fishless Fingers
- Vegan Nuggets
- Vegan Crunchy Tex-Mex Nuggets
- Vegan Hot & Spicy Burgers
- Vegan Smoky Ham Free Slices
- Vegan Chicken Free Slices
- Vegan Pieces
- Vegan Fillets
- Vegan Pepperoni Slices
- Vegan Spicy Tortilla Escalopes
Quorn and its mycoprotein content is a lesser-known meat substitute even though it’s been available since 1985.
Mycoprotein is unique in that it’s derived from a fungus and while it’s extracted and isolated to be used as an ingredient, it’s less processed than many of the other meat-alternative ingredients like those found in JUST Eggs, Beyond Burger, and the Impossible Burger.
Mycoprotein’s quality is impressive. With a PDCAAS rating of 0.99, it’s high quality than most other plant-based and plant-derived sources.
Given that mycoprotein naturally has fiber, it, along with its protein content have been shown to have some unique health benefits like increasing satiety, reducing the amount of insulin that’s released after meals, keeps post-eating blood sugar balanced, helps to balance blood lipids (cholesterol, etc), and may benefit those with diabetes, digestive issues and help with weight loss.
When you go beyond the surface of calories, protein, fiber, fat, and sodium, Quorn products aren’t brimming with nutrients like other plant-based protein foods such as legumes, soy, nuts, and seeds.
As part of a well-rounded diet, omnivore or vegan, Quorn’s product line can be an important contributor to your overall protein intake.