After a bite of schnitzel sends her running to the toilet, Julie Hill dives into the murky world of Britain’s favourite meat substitute.
It was late in the evening and my stomach was empty. I was on my way home after a slightly depressing trip to the hospital, hungry but too weary to cook from scratch. A perfect storm of bad food choices was brewing.
Prowling the aisles of the supermarket, I searched for an instant yet healthy vegetarian meal solution, but I was shit out of luck. In the organicky section, a box of Quorn vegan schnitzels perched high on a fridge shelf seemed to call to me. “The supermarket is closing in five minutes,” it said.
Over three decades as a vegetarian or pescatarian, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with fake meat. On the one hand, I don’t really get it. If I wanted to get stuck into a pie or a steak or a sausage, I would do so, but I really, really don’t. On the other, I still recall the exhilarating moment when, just like a regular Kiwi, I was finally able to rock up to a barbecue and slap a snag on the grill. (Seconds later, it disintegrated to almost nothing – the early models were lacking in structural integrity.)
Back in the day, before fake meat was invented, options for vegetarians were pretty bloody limited. For all of the 1990s, if you went to a café, you’d have to order vegetarian nachos, because they were the only option. If you were invited to dinner at someone’s house, you had to call them a week in advance, on a landline, to deliver the stink news that you didn’t eat meat. You’d wait for the familiar groan before your friend wondered aloud what the fuck they would serve you. In the end, they would always serve you eggplant, the vegetable now better known as the penis emoji, which, if expertly prepared and cooked, is delectable, but if not, tastes like warmed-up slugs.
I wasn’t sure if I’d tried Quorn before but decided to give it a burl. I placed a schnitzel in the oven and, after 12 minutes, my sad little meal was ready. It didn’t taste much like schnitzel to me, but then again, I have no idea what I’m talking about. I was 11 when I stopped eating meat so, while the salty tang of cheerio sausages remains forever lodged in my memory, the more sophisticated meats are harder to recall. But there was little time to make a full appraisal, because two-thirds of the way through my schnitzel, I was overwhelmed by that special pre-chunderous feeling that precedes an actual chunder, and I ran to the bathroom where, in one violent fell swoop, my body rejected it as it if was poison.
Later, I entered “Quorn” and “vomit” into Google, and found I was definitely not alone. A Washington-based outfit called The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has collected thousands of reports of customers vomiting or experiencing abdominal pain, swelling of the throat, hives and even anaphylactic shock after eating the product. CSPI’s website links to numerous reports (including one by Quorn itself that dates back to the 1970s) that warn of its allergenic properties, and the centre has been on a mission for years to convince the US Food and Drug Administration to stop it being sold. So how can this stuff still be on our shelves? And what even is it?
As it turns out, Quorn is the most heinous substance you could possibly imagine: processed mould. Grown in a vat, its main ingredient is something called mycoprotein, which is made by fermenting the fungus fusarium venenatum, discovered by a British company with the yum-sounding name Imperial Chemical Industries in the 1960s (venenatum means “poisoned” in Latin, just by the way). It’s then mixed with binders made of egg whites and wheat protein, and I can not tell you how much my stomach is churning as I type these words.
Quorn launched in the UK in 1985 and, at first, packaged mycoprotein as “mushroom in origin”, which was a big tonne of BS because, while it’s true that all mushrooms are fungi, not all fungi are mushrooms, and this would be one example. And, while Quorn emphasised its product’s similarity to “truffles, mushrooms and morels”, it kept the main ingredient – mould – very much on the down low.
That may have proved fatal for an 11-year-old American kid called Miles Bengco who, in 2013, ate a Quorn Turk’y Burger for dinner and died the next morning. Miles had a severe allergy to mould, but neither he nor his parents had any idea that that’s what he was eating, in massive quantities. His parents took the company to court but Quorn denied the claims, suggesting he really died of badly controlled asthma. Then another US customer named Kimberley Birbower sued Quorn in 2015 after buying their Chick’n product from a Whole Foods, accusing it of deliberately hiding the fact mould was a key ingredient, and the company was forced to admit the truth on its packaging.
Despite that, Quorn says bad reactions are so rare as to be negligible. A spokesperson from the Ministry of Primary Industries says while it received one unconfirmed report of vomiting in 2014, it’s not aware of any medically confirmed adverse reactions in New Zealand. “Food Standards Australia New Zealand considered the information on adverse reactions from the mycoprotein in Quorn,” MPI says, “and noted that while the vast majority of consumers can eat the product safely there may be a reaction for one in 100,0000 people who eat the product, with a possibility that this reaction could come from a reaction to other fungi or moulds. New Zealand Food Safety advise if you think you have suffered an adverse reaction to mycoprotein is to stop eating the product and see your doctor. Mycoprotein or Quorn is listed on the ingredients list of any foods that contain it, so consumers can check the label to identify product they need to avoid.”
Good advice, except that, even if I’d had time to read the list of ingredients (more of a short story than a list really: the schnitzels have 24 ingredients) and seen the word “mycoprotein”, I would have had to Google it to find out what the hell it is. Under “allergy advice” it does mention that “mycoprotein is made with a member of the fungi/mould family”, but my feeling is that this could have come a bit higher up. Having said that, even if I’d seen the M word, I couldn’t have foreseen my reaction, as I wasn’t aware I was intolerant to mould – but that’s possibly because I’ve never tried to eat it, especially not in the form of a schnitzel.
Quorn is no longer a British company – it’s been bought by the Philippines-based Monde Nissin Corporation. And it’s come a long way from the humble savoury pie it served up to the public in the 1980s. There are now more than 100 products, including mince, sausages, “chicken” nuggets and “fish” fingers. Clearly, there are thousands and perhaps millions of Quorn enthusiasts across the globe who can walk blithely past it in the supermarket without experiencing extreme nausea, and I salute them. But for now, I’m making a delayed New Year’s resolution: always check the ingredient list – and avoid any “food” that is grown in a vat.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.