I used to think I was cooking healthy meals for my family.
As a vegetarian in a family of omnivores, I wanted to make everyone’s meaty favorites—just without the meat.
I thought I’d struck gold when I discovered Quorn.
Its bright orange-and-white packaging gleamed from the freezer case, offering every kind of meat substitute I’d need: ground “beef,” “chicken” breasts, sausages and burgers.
I cooked up chili, chicken breasts in mole sauce, bangers and mash—and no one complained.
Quorn tasted as close to real meat as you could get. It was high in fiber and protein, low in carbs, and contained mostly unsaturated fat. It was made from mycoprotein, which was the same kind of protein found in mushrooms.
At least, that’s what I THOUGHT.
My family and I joined the legions of Quorn fans who found the transition to a meat-free diet easy and ethically-satisfying.
Quorn’s founder, British industrialist and movie mogul Joseph Arthur Rank, developed mycoprotein in the 1960s in response to fears about a global food shortage.
He wondered if starch could be turned to protein and ordered his research director to find out.
His team began testing soil samples for microorganisms that might work…
And the winner was Fusarium venenatum PTA 2684.
That’s the clean version of the story, and it’s all most people want to know. Today, Quorn is sold in 19 different countries and is on track to becoming a billion-dollar business within the next 10 years.
But Quorn, like canola oil, is hiding a dirty secret.
It’s not a mushroom-like protein. It’s fermented mold.
Fusarium venenatum PTA 2684 is a soil mold. It’s grown in water in stainless steel fermentation tanks, and fed with glucose and fixed nitrogen.
To make Quorn, vitamins and minerals are added to look good on the product’s nutritional facts. The fermented mold is extracted and heat-treated to remove excess ribonucleic acid. Finally, it’s dried and mixed with egg albumen (or potato protein in its vegan formulation) to make it stick together.
To turn mycoprotein into one of the over 90 food products sold by Quorn, the manufacturer adds additional ingredients, such as milk, wheat, gluten, tapioca starch, palm oil, and/or artificial colors and flavors.
In 2017, California consumers won a class action suit against the makers of Quorn, claiming that the packaging misled them into believing they were consuming mushroom protein, not fermented mold.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest claims that mycoprotein can cause “serious and even fatal allergic reactions,” similar to other common food allergies like peanut or soy.
Was that really the kind of “food” I wanted to be serving to my family?
So I went back to the freezer aisle. Surely there was something as tasty as Quorn I could use in my family’s favorite dishes.
And what I found was that fake meats aren’t such a healthy option after all.
Most fake meats are ultra-processed and contain allergens like wheat gluten (seitan) and soy (textured vegetable protein). Registered dietician Rachel Link recommends skipping them altogether.
“These ultra-processed foods tend to be high in sodium and additives while offering little nutritionally,” she writes. “They also often contain questionable ingredients and harmful preservatives that your body is better off without.”
So what was I going to cook with?
Maybe I liked lentils, black beans, and cashews, but those weren’t exactly the basis for child-friendly meals.
Link recommends jackfruit and tempeh.
Jackfruit is actually a fruit—a GINORMOUS fruit. It belongs to the fig, mulberry, and breadfruit family, and a single fruit can weigh in at 100 pounds.
While a ripe jackfruit is sweet, similar to other tropical fruits, what you want is the unripe green jackfruit, which has a more neutral flavor. When cooked, the texture is meat-like. Don’t throw away the seeds. Boil or roast them, and try them, too.
You may not be able to find jackfruit in your local grocery store, but a health food store should carry them. You can also find canned jackfruit that’s easier to store and cook with.
Tempeh is made from soybeans, so you’d think it would have the same drawbacks as processed soy. But it’s fermented, giving it a probiotic boost. Unlike tofu, tempeh lacks the soy isoflavones that mimic the effects of estrogen.
If your family turns up their nose at jackfruit and tempeh but devours every veggie burger you put on their plate, you’ll have to make a tough decision.
Try to change their taste buds…
Or accept that you can’t win every battle?
Have you tried cooking with meat substitutes? Are they worth the effort? What meat-free meals are guaranteed to put a smile on your family’s face? Let us know in the comments.