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Well, it tastes like chicken - sort of

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you didn't know better you'd swear you were eating ... something.

Something resembling a creature that once walked the Earth, scratched ground, occasionally clucked. Something like a chicken breast patty in a seasoned bread-crumb coating baked in an oven and served hot.

It's close, really very close. Closer than a veggie burger is to a beef burger. Closer than soy ice cream is to dairy ice cream.

Yet, after a few bites you suspect you have crossed into a parallel, approximate universe. Maybe it's the lack of meaty juice and distinct poultry flavor. The most candid broker might have called the product "Sort of ... "

Instead its British manufacturers called it "Quorn" (pronounced "kworn"), which is also the shortened name of the village of Quorndon in North Leicestershire, England. Today Quorn - made from a fungus originally found in soil and cultivated through fermentation - is the best-selling meat substitute in Europe and is fast gaining on its U.S. competition.

Quorn first appeared in England in 1985 and hit U.S. stores about two years ago in several forms, all frozen: nuggets, hot dogs, loaves, ground like hamburger meat, cutlets, lasagna and fettuccine Alfredo.

"They sell really well," says Kim Papier, the assistant manager of David's Natural Market in Columbia. "People seem to like them a whole lot better than the tofu-type meats."

Thanks to the clustered fungus fibers, the texture is more like meat than other substitutes, even if the taste is about as bland as tofu. New York Times food-tasting columnist Eric Asimov has called Quorn nuggets "inoffensive and virtually flavorless, perfect for people who think of food only in terms of nutrients."

Papier says he's a meat guy and has not personally tried Quorn. The store's nutritionist has, however.

"It has the right texture," says Courtney Carpenter. "It doesn't have a totally 100 percent chicken flavor. It's mild. It doesn't have a weird aftertaste. ... You could probably pass it off as chicken breast if nobody asks."

And if they ask, well, then you might have to say.

You might say it's made from mycoprotein. That would be true, but no one would know what you're talking about.

You might then have to go ahead and say that it's made from, well, a fungus. That would be right, but it would really be more accurate to say that this particular fungus - Fusarium venenatum - is rather closely related to, well, mold.

You might then have to frantically recover by quickly mentioning all the really lovely edible things that are also in the vast fungus biological kingdom - mushrooms, among others - before your guests start thinking that you had just served a plate of athlete's foot.

Of course, the folks who wrote the Quorn package took this into account. Sort of.

"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," says the label on a package of breaded cutlets.

The description goes on to note that the mycoprotein (myco is Greek for fungi) is made by fermentation. That word is not necessarily appetizing either, so the package notes some favorite fermented things: yogurt, cheese, beer.

The label does not mention mold. Still, the language on the package pleases David M. Geiser, director of the Fusarium Research Center of Pennsylvania State University.

"Good for them, that's fine," says Geiser, who was not happy with the original label. Geiser had co-written a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration two years ago protesting the fact that the packages at that time implied that Quorn was made from a kind of mushroom.

While Fusarium venenatum is in the same vast biological kingdom as mushrooms, Geiser says it by no stretch of the imagination should be considered a type of mushroom.

Food researchers in England found the Fusarium venenatum in a soil sample taken near a farm in the late 1960s, when fears of a world food shortage spurred a scramble for new protein sources. If you saw the stuff growing in a petri dish or on a plant, it would look pale and fuzzy.

Geiser - who likes the idea of Quorn as a low-environmental-impact protein source - was alerted to questions about the Quorn label by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. The consumer advocacy group has criticized the FDA for allowing the misleading Quorn label and for not being more rigorous in investigating the safety of the product.

Some people who have eaten Quorn have had adverse reactions ranging from diarrhea to violent vomiting to anaphylaxis, or difficulty breathing. Some folks have rushed to hospital emergency rooms, according to CSPI.

No large-scale study of the effects of Quorn-eating has been done, but CSPI did commission a British agency to conduct a phone survey of 1,000 people, about 400 of whom had eaten Quorn. Of these Quorn eaters, CSPI says, 4.5 percent experienced some adverse reaction.

To put that 4.5 percent in perspective, the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network says roughly 2.5 percent of Americans have some sort of food allergy, about half of those reporting peanut allergies. The American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology says the number rises to a bit more than 4 percent when the calculation includes children.

Marlow Foods, the British manufacturer of Quorn, disputes CSPI's numbers, saying its inquiries show that 1 person in 143,000 reports some adverse effects from Quorn. CSPI's executive director, Michael F. Jacobson, calls that figure "total malarkey." He says Marlow's number is based only on those people who took the initiative to contact the company when they became sick after eating Quorn.

The FDA is following up on some of the reports CSPI has been gathering on its Web site, quorncomplaints.com.

George Pauli, acting director of the FDA's Office of Food Additives Safety, says the product "may actually be allergic for some individuals," but this is not clear. The numbers appear to be very small, he says, noting that millions of Europeans have been eating it for years.

"We've been in contact with the British government" about this, says Pauli. "They didn't consider it a very important issue."

Jacobson argues that when some of the reactions are so serious - he says there are reports of people damaging blood vessels in the esophagus from violent vomiting - it should not be a question of numbers.

"You have to look at the symptoms," says Jacobson, arguing that the FDA should pull Quorn off the market. "These are so severe. I think it's absolutely crazy to consciously allow a food allergen into the food system."

David Wilson, the vice president and general manager of Quorn operations in the United States, says CSPI is overreacting.

"As with any protein, you're going to get a certain percentage of the population that's going to have a sensitivity to it," says Wilson. As near as he can tell, whatever controversy there was about this has blown over.

He says Quorn has outsold a few competing meat substitutes, and is now second to Boca burgers, the largest-selling product in the category. At a natural-foods exposition in Anaheim, Calif., next month, Quorn plans to unveil four new products, including chicken saute, Mexican and Thai dishes.

Sure, with enough hot chilis, onions, garlic, pepper, salt, cheese, satay sauce, tomatoes and cilantro, no one would suspect anything other than chicken.

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