For vegetarians (especially new ones), it is often a challenge to find convenient, meat-free products to serve as a main course, which makes it especially disappointing when big corporations end up bending the truth about the ingredients that make up their favorite products. Many people turn to the convenience of meat-style products ranging from vegans sausages to mock chicken strips and chicken nuggets in order to make the transition.
But are they really getting something healthier, or just an inferior-quality processed food product devoid of real nutrition?
In a recent lawsuit, a vegetarian “meat” company Quorn Foods Inc. was accused of misleading customers that their main ingredient, called mycoprotein, is a type of a mushroom, when in reality the ingredient is actually a fancy name for a type of mold.
Quorn’s meat substitute products such as meat-less sausages, “chik’n” bites, and “fish-less” fingers are sold in big chains such as Whole Foods all over the country, some European countries, and Australia.
On their packages, such as the one for Chik’n Nuggets they proudly announced the following:
“Chik’n Nuggets are made with mycoprotein (‘myco’ is Greek for ‘fungi’) and are completely meatless & soy-free. There are believed to be over 600,000 varieties of fungi in the world, many of which are among the most sought after foods like varieties of mushrooms, truffles, and morels.”
The label is extremely misleading, the lawsuit alleged, because the two claims made are technically not false: mycoprotein is derived from a fungi, and mushrooms are the most well-known and eaten type of fungi. But by putting the two sentences together, Quorn made it sound like mycoprotein is just like a type of a mushroom, which it is not. It allegedly is the other type of fungi – mold, believe or not.
The lawsuit, filed in the state of California in January 2016, claimed exactly that – false advertisement, tricking the customers into buying a mold-based food while believing it is mushroom-based.
Plaintiff Kimberly Birbower claimed that mycoprotein is “a brand name coined by Quorn for an ingredient that is actually fermented soil mold with added vitamins and flavors…Quorn’s representations on its boxes are clearly designed to deceive consumers…”
Lawsuit Settled, Quorn Removes Labeling
In February 2017, Quorn agreed to settle the lawsuit, and removed the following labeling claim from its packaging per the agreement:
“There are believed to be over 600,000 varieties of fungi in the world, many of which are among the most sought after foods like varieties of mushroom, truffles, and morels.”
The company also agreed to not use similar language in the future on its packaging.
Quorn package’s statement on allergies will also say the following:
“There have been rare cases of allergic reactions to products that contain mycoprotein, a mold (member of the fungi family). Mycoprotein is high in protein and fiber which may cause intolerance in some people. We do not use any ingredients derived from genetically modified sources in this product.”
This warning will be more prominently displayed on the back of the package.
Settlement awards to people who bought the product were also given out earlier this year. Whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, or just someone who cares about what you put in your body, you may want to learn more about how Quorn and other mycoprotein containing products are made, and what potential side effects and health risks may be present according to researchers, before your next purchase.
What is Mycoprotein?
“Mushrooms are as distantly related to Quorn’s fungus as humans are to jellyfish,” told a Cornell University mycologist to the FDA.
Mycoprotein is made from a fungus called Fusarium venenatum, which was first discovered in a soil sample. Ironically “venenatum” in Latin means “filled with venom.”
The controversial ingredient was then created by a U.K. scientist who thought there would be a protein shortage soon. The fungus is fermented with oxygen, glucose, and nutrients to make mycoprotein.
Mycoprotein was approved for human consumption in 1985 and Quorn adopted it as the main ingredient in their product line. It became available in the U.S. in 2002, but many people still don’t realize how the product is actually made.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved mycoprotein and classified it as GRAS or “Generally Recognized as Safe.”
But as the studies and customer complaints show, it may not be 100% safe for everyone.
Quorn Products Have Been Linked to Adverse Reactions for Decades
Warning: This product might cause severe diarrhea or vomiting, or a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction; an allergy might develop only after consuming the product several times.
This is not the warning label on Quorn products, but from The Center for Science in The Public Interest (CSPI), a non-profit food-safety organization.
The CSPI has been collecting medical studies from as early as 1977 and customer complaints on their site that showed Quorn products cause adverse reactions in almost 5% of the consumers: vomiting, nausea, stomach pains, hives, breathing difficulties, asthmatic reactions, blood in bodily fluids, and allergic reactions.
One of the customers describes that after eating Quorn she was “violently ill” for at least two days with non-stop vomiting, sweating, and experiencing diarrhea: “It was traumatic…Had there been a warning, I would never have eaten that. I am NOT allergic to eggs, wheat or milk. I eat those daily. This product could kill someone that couldn’t handle what I went through.”
It has been estimated than more people are allergic to Quorn products than any other big allergens: shellfish, milk, peanuts, gluten, other nuts, fish, eggs, and soy.
CSPI wrote to the FDA multiple times to ask them to “revoke the GRAS status of mycoprotein and get this dangerous product off of grocery store shelves.”
The FDA ignored the letters, but in 2015 Quorn had to add a warning label that their products can cause an allergic reaction after one customer died after consuming their products.
Quorn Has Been Sued Before for an Allergy-Related Death
In 2015 Quorn was sued by the parents of 11-year-old boy Miles Bengco who died shortly after consuming a Quorn’s Turk’y Burger product. The child experienced an asthma attack prior to his passing.
The lawsuit says that Quorn’s products was poison for Miles: “desperate medical measures undertaken thereafter were unavailing. Neither Miles’ family nor his emergency doctors knew or had any reason to suspect that Miles was reacting to his ingestion of a massive amount of mold.”
Quorn has vigorously denied the allegations, as this article notes.
But after hearing the story of Miles and at least 2,000 consumers who have written about experiencing an adverse reaction from Quorn, the CSPI is urging everyone to stop buying Quorn products.
“There are plenty of nutritious, safe, and environmentally-friendly meat substitutes, made with soybeans, mushrooms, legumes, rice, and other real food ingredients. It’s crazy to knowingly allow a potent new allergen into the food supply yet that’s exactly what the FDA has done,”said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson.
Quorn’s sales saw an increase of 6% in the UK in January 2016 according to the Press Association, while revenues in the United States increased by a whopping 64% in January 2016.
The Britain-based food company saw a 19 percent sales rise in the first half of 2017, however, so it may be making its way to more stores. Make sure you know what you’re buying (not to mention the potential health risks) before you consider adding Quorn or any other similar products to your shopping cart.
This article was first written in February 2016 and updated in November 2017. For more articles like these in your inbox (and a free eBook) you can sign up for our newsletter by clicking here.