Fungus the bogeyman

Low in fat and high in protein and fibre, the meat substitute Quorn has been on sale in Britain for 18 years. But not everyone is positive about this miracle food

Most vegetarians have heard of Quorn (pronounced "kworn"). It's a textured fungus food that serves as a meat substitute. It's high in protein and fibre and low in fat, and it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes: burgers, sausages, fillets and even "ham". It is also sold in ready-made meals, such as Quorn Provençale and Quorn Tikka Masala. My teenage daughter has been a vegetarian for two years, and she swears by the stuff. But not everyone is as happy with Quorn.

Last month, Dr Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an American health advocacy group, had a letter published in the American Journal of Medicine claiming that eating Quorn can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, hives, swelling and anaphylactic shock. This follows a survey of British Quorn consumers (commissioned by the CSPI) which showed that 5 per cent of the 346 people surveyed reported an allergic reaction after eating the product.

The CSPI's website is rather less temperate than Jacobson's letter. It says: "Marlow Foods (owned by Montagu Private Equity) claims that its Quorn product is some natural, mushroom-like food. Quorn's packaging states that the so-called 'mycoprotein' in Quorn [is] 'made from natural ingredients', 'mushroom in origin' and 'made from a small, unassuming member of the mushroom family'. Bah! It is made from a fungus found in a British dirt sample, and grown in huge fermentation vats. The fungus that makes up Quorn, Fusarium venenatum, has nothing to do with mushrooms. It is about as closely related to mushrooms as an octopus is related to humans."

This is not quite the language of science. But is there any truth in their allegations? First, I took a look at the packaging for the Quorn Deli, Wafer Thin Ham Flavour in my fridge. It said: "Mycoprotein is a nutritious member of the fungi family." There is no mention of "mushroom in origin". In fact, Marlow Foods recently changed the packaging to be more truthful.

The CSPI also accuses Quorn of originating from a "British dirt sample". I was not sure whether "British" was meant to be as pejorative as "dirt", but anyway, this is something Marlow Foods also readily admits to on its packaging. The company says that Fusarium venenatum was discovered in 1967 in a field in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.

Stating that a food is a fungus is hardly an argument for taking it off supermarket shelves. After all, beer is fermented with a fungus, and blue cheese has fungus visibly growing on it. One of the most sought-after foods in the world, the truffle, is a fungus. But the name-calling is just a diversion from the key issue: is this food really dangerous? After all, the study asserts that a higher percentage of people have an allergic reaction to Quorn than to shellfish (shellfish is said to affect 3 per cent of the population).

Hundreds of people have written to the CSPI telling of their adverse reactions to Quorn. The list of symptoms includes "bad stomach-ache", "violently ill", "I vomited blood", "paralysis in my hands", "headache", "migraine", "severe sweating" and "itching on the neck".

Jacobson is alarmed by the hundreds of accounts of adverse reactions his organisation has received. In a letter to the American Journal of Medicine, he says: "At a time of widespread public concern about food allergies, it is shocking that the FDA [The US Food and Drug Administration] would permit a new food that it knows will sicken countless consumers. The FDA should order it off the market immediately."

But Quorn is not new. It has been sold as a foodstuff in the UK for 18 years, and in the US for nearly two years. And if food should be taken off the market because it causes some adverse reactions, shouldn't we first ban peanuts? After all, people with peanut allergies have died from eating them. No one has died from eating Quorn.

Marlow Foods contends that Quorn causes allergic reaction in as few as one in 146,000 people, but Jacobson is having none of it. "That ridiculous figure is based on the number of reactions allegedly received by Marlow Foods and not the number of people affected," he says. "No epidemiologist would take that number seriously. To determine prevalence, you need either a large clinical study or a survey of the general population." Larger, presumably, than Jacobson's sample of 346.

But all food companies are legally obliged to share their data on food intolerance with the regulators, and Marlow Foods is no exception. So far, the UK's Food Standards Agency has found no just reason to take Quorn off the market. After a plea by the CSPI in 2002 to ban Quorn, the FSA gave the following response: "Any protein-containing food has the potential to cause an allergic reaction. When Quorn was approved for use in the UK some 15 years ago, it was first trialled in the company's restaurant and then in one region of the UK. Allergy clinics were asked to report any change in the normal pattern of food intolerance with which they were dealing at that time. As a result of these studies it was known that there was a low level of intolerance to the product amongst the UK population."

In spite of this setback, Jacobson has not given up his campaign against Quorn. But Alex Woolfall, a spokesman for Marlow Foods, says that if Jacobson has all this supposed damning evidence, why won't he share it with Marlow Foods or even an independent third party? He is keen to sit down with the CSPI to look more closely at these figures, but the CSPI refuses to co-operate. Woolfall is reaching the end of his tether: "We're not going to allow them to pull very spurious data - in our view - together and then claim that it's fact." The only agency to which Jacobson has sent evidence is the US FDA, but it has failed to impress them; Quorn's status of "generally recognised as safe" remains firmly in place.

"If 5 per cent of people who ate eggs, for instance, got sick, I think we'd all hear about it," says Ian Marber of the nutrition consultants The Food Doctor. If you bear in mind that over the past 18 years, 20 million people have eaten about one billion Quorn products, you would certainly have expected more of a public outcry.

Of course, the few people who are allergic to this protein might get an upset stomach, but then all Quorn products are clearly labelled as containing Quorn (they have to by law, as Quorn is a trademarked product). On the other hand, peanuts have no trademark and there is no legal obligation to let people know that it is in foodstuffs.

So is Quorn nutritious to eat? "Oh yes, absolutely. If you're a vegetarian, it's a great source of protein," says Marber. With that I pop a Deli "ham" into my mouth. It smells like ham, it tastes a bit like ham. I might even grow to like it.