Some of you may have noticed that I don’t believe much conventional nutritional ‘wisdom’, including the notion that some highly processed, relatively new-fangled foods are somehow ‘healthy’, and perhaps ‘better’ for us than those we’ve been eating for, say, hundreds of thousands of years.
One commonly-employed tactic used by the food industry to convince us of the value of processed foods is to point to point to the ‘low fat’ nature of their product, and use to claim that this makes it healthier than a higher-fat food found in nature. It’s not uncommon for the ‘perils’ of saturated fat and cholesterol to be alluded to here. This ploy is used to sell everything from margarine to low-fat ice cream. It’s a great way, I reckon, to give a thoroughly unhealthy food a nice, nutritious sheen.
The problem is that the low-fat line in meaningless. For a start, the evidence doesn’t support the idea that food constituents such as saturated fat and cholesterol are not the dietary spectres they’re so often made out to be. And even if they were hazardous to health, that does not make a food low in them automatically healthy (soil, say, is low in fat ” that doesn’t make it a good food to fill up on).
One food the manufacturers of which take the ‘low-fat’ tack is Quorn. Some of you may have heard of it, Some of you may not. Few of you, I suspect, will know what it’s made from, so let’s cover that first:
The main ingredient in Quorn is ‘mycoprotein’. This actually comes from a mold organism (Fusarium venenatum) that was discovered in soil by British scientists in the 1960s. This organism is them multiplied en masse in steel containers with some added sugar and nutrients and then contrived into foods such as burgers, sausages and meat.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I don’t rate this food. And I said as much when assessing it as part of giving my thoughts on the shopping basket contents of the soulstress Joss Stone for the Observer Food Monthly magazine here in the UK a week back.
I’ve realised over the years that the food industry tends to leave you alone as long as you do not mention specific product names. Once you do, however, the PR machine usually cranks up and a letter or email of complaint may well come your way. Because Quorn appeared in Joss Stone’s basket, I was duty bound to refer to it specifically. And predictably, I suppose, I have heard from its manufacturers.
What follows is the email exchange I had with Tim Finnigan, head of new product development at Quorn. I’ve posted this exchange as an example of how food companies use dietary misinformation (including the idea that eating less saturated fat/cholesterol has benefits for health) to sell its wares to an unsuspecting public.
Notice throughout how Mr Finnigan seems to for Quorn to be viewed as a ‘natural’ food, even though it is anything but. More than once I ask if it would be possible for me to witness the manufacturing process and take some photos. Mr Finnigan starts by seemingly ignoring my request, and then when pushed, declares photography is not possible because of a ‘no glass policy’ in the manufacturing area.
In the last email of our exchange I challenge this policy, and suggest that perhaps Mr Finnigan might like to send me some photos of his own, with a detailed prescription of the manufacturing process. I’ve not heard from Mr Finnigan since. But if I do, I’ll let you know what his response is�.
Email from Tim Finnigan to John Briffa – 1st April:
What’s in your basket – Joss Stone. 24th February 2008
Your comments about QuornTM have caused quite a stir. A number of our loyal fans have written to us to complain about your observation that ”Quorn” has ‘no great nutritional value’.
They are rather puzzled and so are we. The mycoprotein in Quorn products is a source of high quality protein. It’s naturally low in fat and saturates; it contains no cholesterol and few calories. What’s more, unlike meat it’s a good source of essential dietary fibre. To dismiss Quorn products as having no great nutritional value seems perverse.
You also describe ”Quorn” as unnatural, but the process for making mycoprotein is no more unnatural than that used to make cheese or beer. Mycoprotein is made by fermentation of our nutritious fugni, using glucose and minerals. Quorn products are made from mycoprotein with a small amount of egg protein, vegetable flavourings, and other ingredients including onion, etc., depending upon the type of product, (mince, burgers, sausages, deli, etc.), being made.
I’d be more than happy to discuss this with you further and you’d be most welcome to visit us at Stokesley where Quorn products are made.
The defence of Quorn, you may notice, uses that classic ‘low-fat’ line. Note also how Mr Finnigan questions my assessment of Quorn as an unnatural food by likening it to cheese and beer. That’s another classic tactic used by the food industry to give quite unnatural foods a ‘natural’, wholesome image.
Anyway, complaints from food companies need to be taken seriously, so I responded to Mr Finnagan’s email the following day:
Email from John Briffa to Tim Finnigan ” 2nd April:
I’ll take your main comments and points in turn:
A number of our loyal fans have written to us to complain about your observation that ”Quorn” has ‘no great nutritional value’. They are rather puzzled and so are we.
Would it be possible to see these complaints (even anonymised)?
The mycoprotein in Quorn products is a source of high quality protein.
Could you give me more information to substantiate this claim? How was protein quality assessed, and what were the results?
It’s naturally low in fat and saturates; it contains no cholesterol and few calories.
Can you provide the evidence that a diet lower in saturated fat and/or cholesterol is beneficial to health?
What’s more, unlike meat it’s a good source of essential dietary fibre.
Can you quantify and qualify this (how much fibre and in what form)?
Would you also mind summarising what you feel the potential benefits of the form of fibre found in Quorn are?
You also describe ”Quorn” as unnatural, but the process for making mycoprotein is no more unnatural than that used to make cheese or beer.
I don’t see taking a mold organism from soil and multiplying it en masse (with sugar and minerals) as particularly ‘natural’. Do you?
I’d be more than happy to discuss this with you further and you’d be most welcome to visit us at Stokesley where Quorn products are made.
Thanks for this offer. Would you be happy for me to witness the manufacturing of Quorn and perhaps take some photographs?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Email from Tim Finnigan to John Briffa ” 4th April:
My apologies again for the tardiness of my reply, I seem to have been driving the length and breadth of the country this week. Anyway, if in this instance I could first try to answer your specific questions relating to the nutritional value of Quorn foods.
At the heart of all of our food is mycoprotein and thus I will address your points in relation to mycoprotein and the published nutritional data. I have copies of most of the published papers to which I refer and could forward them if you would like to review their content.
I am back in the car after about 2pm today so will not be able to pick up emails until Monday but will then be happy to try to answer any questions that you have.
Quorn products are a source of high quality and easily digested protein. As you know, the quality of dietary protein is based on its content of nine essential amino acids. Mycoprotein contains all nine and its PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score) is 0.91, only fractionally behind beef at 0.92. I attach a short paper which explores this in more detail.
I am aware that some studies question the link between total fat intake and the risk of developing CVD. However, there is a powerful body of evidence which shows that elevated levels of saturated fat in the diet is linked with increased disease risk and this is reflected in current Department of Health advice.
It is also reflected in Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases, a joint report published in 2004 by the World Health Organisation and the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United States.
Mycoprotein is both low in saturates and high in the more desirable unsaturated fatty acids and has also been been studied over the years in relation to hypocholesterolaemia, the findings of which have been published in peer reviewed journals; for example:
* Turnbull, WH, Leeds AR and Edwards, DG (1990) Effect of mycoprotein on blood lipids. Am J Clin Nutr. 52. (4) 646-650.
* Turnbull, WH, Leeds, AR, and Edwards, DG (1992). Mycoprotein reduces blood lipids in free living subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 55. 415 – 419.
* Nakamura, H. et al (1994). Effects of mycoprotein intake on serum lipids of healthy subjects. Progress in medicine. 14. (7). 1972 – 1976.
* Homma, Y. et al. (1995) Effects of 8 week ingestion of mycoprotein on plasma levels of lipids and apo proteins. Prog. Med. 15. 183 – 195
* Ishikawa, T. et al. (1995). The effect of mycoprotein intake (12 and 24g day) over 4 weeks on serum cholesterol levels. Prog Med. 15 61 – 74.
Mycoprotein contains 4.8g of dietary fibre per 100g. For comparison baked beans contain 3.7g per 100g and a slice of brown bread contains 1.3g. The fibre in mycoprotein is especially interesting as it is primarily polymeric n-acetyl glucosamine (chitin) and beta1,3 and 1,6 glucan. There is considerable interest in the literature in the beneficial effects of beta glucans of this type as well as interest in naturally occurring polymeric glucosamine.
In addition, independent studies have shown a link between consumption of mycoprotein and satiety as well as beneficial effects on glycaemia and insulinaemia. The causal mechanism is likely to be associated with the fibre content but the published observations require further study.
* Blundell, J (2002) Mycoprotein and satiety. Paper presented at JONAS symposium, Paris 18/1/02.
* Burley, VJ, Paul, AW and Blundell, JE. (1993) Influence of high fibre food (mycoprotein) on appetit: Effect of satiation (within meals) and satiety (following meals). Euro. J. Clin. Nutr. 47. 409 – 418.
* Turnbull, WH. Bessy, D, Walton,J and Leeds. AR. (1991) The effect of mycoprotein on hunger, satiety and subsequent food consumption. In ‘Obesity in Europe 91’ p 67 – 70. Ed Ailhaud, G. etal.
* Turnbull, WH, Walton, J and Leeds, AR (1993) Acute effects of mycoprotein on subsequent energy intake and appetite variables. Am J Clin Nutr. 58:(4). 507 – 512.
* Marks, L. I. (2005). Effects of mycoprotein foodstuffs on glycaemic responses and other factors beneficial to health. Ph. D. Thesis. School of biomedical sciences. University of Ulster.
* Turnbull, WH and Ward, JH. (1995). Mycoprotein reduces insulinaemia and glycaemia when taken with an oral glucose tolerance test. Am J Clin Nutr 65 (1). 135 -140
* Turnbull, WH. Mycoprotein as a functional food. Effect of lipaemia, glycaemia and appetite variable. 16th Int Congress of Nutrition. 249 – 251.
We do not think of tofu, cheese or beer as being unnatural, yet none of these foods occurs spontaneously in nature. The same is true of mycoprotein. The raw ingredients are all natural; we put them together to make mycoprotein.
John I hope that this begins to address at least some of the nutritional questions that you posed. Mycoprotein is a fascinating (and I hope you agree, nutritious) new discovery. I would love to get the opportunity for our chefs to prepare a range of Quorn foods for you to show how we are also passionate our food.
Would it be possible for you to suggest some dates when you are available to visit us in Stokesley (North Yorkshire) so that we can share a more extensive overview of our food and why we think that we are helping to extend consumer choices in healthy eating. Any chance we could do this in May only we are flat out finalising our new products for early May launch at the moment??
TJA Finnigan BSc (Hons). Ph.D
Head of New Product Development (Quorn and Cauldron)
Email from John Briffa to Tim Finnigan – 10th April:
Thanks for your email. Sorry about the delay – I was away for a few days until Tuesday and I’m a bit behind on correspondence.
Whilst I am grateful for your response, there are a number of issues I raised in my email to you that do not seem to have been addressed. Let’s get down to specifics regarding the questions I asked and the completeness (or otherwise) of your responses:
1, I asked is it was possible to see the complaints from your loyal fans.
You did not answer this.
2. I asked you to substantiate your claim that regarding Quorn supplying high quality protein.
Thank you for this, and I accept your point regarding the ability of Quorn to offer high-quality protein.
3. I asked you to provide the evidence that a diet lower in saturated fat and/or cholesterol is beneficial to health.
You provided no evidence for either of these contentions. You did refer to conventional recommendations (which have no validity unless their robustness in science can be proven).
You also referred to a ‘powerful body of evidence’ that shows that: ‘elevated levels of saturated fat in the diet is linked with increased disease risk. Can I ask you to provide this ‘powerful body of evidence’? Can I also ask you to let me know your opinion of the role of epidemiological studies in showing ‘causality’ (i.e., just because two things are associated, does that mean one is causing the other?).
And finally (and this is the most important thing of all) can you please actually answer the original question by providing evidence that eating a diet lower in saturated fat and/or cholesterol is actually beneficial to health.
4. I asked if you could provide information on the quality and quantity of fibre in Quorn, which you have done.
However, I also asked if you would summarise what you feel the potential benefits of this fibre is. You did not answer this question.
5. I asked if you see taking a mold organism from soil and multiplying it en masse (with sugar and minerals) as ‘natural’. You replied:
We do not think of tofu, cheese or beer as being unnatural, yet none of these foods occurs spontaneously in nature. The same is true of mycoprotein. The raw ingredients are all natural; we put them together to make mycoprotein.�
First of all, you position depends on on who the ‘we’ you refer to are. Because, as it happens, I don’t see any of the foods you chose to use as examples as particularly natural, and I don’t advocate any of them (and am on record for saying as much). I am also not convinced that just because the organism from which mycoprotein is made is found in nature that it therefore deserves the ‘natural’ sheen that has been bestowed on it. I mean, there’s a bunch of other organisms found in soil (and maybe the faeces that can adorn it too) that are ‘natural’, but in this context we get to see just how meaningless this adjective is.
I suppose we’re going to have to agree to differ on the point of whether taking mold organism from the ground and making it into a quite processed foodstuff using additives including sugar is ‘natural’ or not.
6. Finally, you say you’d be more than happy to discuss this with me further and that I’d be most welcome to visit us at Stokesley where Quorn products are made.
What I asked specifically was if you would be happy for me to witness the manufacturing of Quorn and perhaps take some photographs?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Email from Tim Finnigan to John Briffa – 15th April.
Hi John, thanks for your email. I too have been out and about and so am a little behind on correspondence and hence the small delay.
Perhaps I could pause to reframe the context of my original email. As a reader of the Observer and as someone who enjoys the scientifically challenging stance you often take within your BLOG, I was disappointed to learn that you felt ‘Quorn has no great nutritional value’. As someone who has spent many years working with mycoprotein and developing Quorn foods I didn’t feel that my products deserved the label and thus felt a little misunderstood. On this basis, our conversations began.
I have provided you with evidence that Quorn is able to offer a good quality protein and was pleased that you accepted this. I have provided you with information on the quality and quantity of the fibre which you acknowledge and have also tried to develop this by proposing that the fibre itself may be a factor in the causal mechanism(s) within the peer reviewed publications that describe mycoprotein and hypocholesterolaemia, satiety and positive impact on glycaemia. However, I acknowledge that we require to continue to seek further independent research into these attributes.
Let me turn to your points about the evidence for the benefits of a diet low in saturated fat and/or cholesterol and your subsequent point about the benefits of a diet high in fibre. I acknowledge that there is scientific debate around these issues but at present the advice is that generally speaking people need to reduce the amount of fat and saturates in their diet, to manage or reduce cholesterol and to increase consumption of dietary fibre. The DoH and FSA are satisfied that the evidence for the health benefits of these dietary changes is compelling. We take our lead from them and offer consumers products which allow them to make choices in line with prevailing dietary advice.
Regarding the debate about whether Mycoprotein can be described as natural, my point is that it is no more unnatural than tofu, cheese or beer and that these products are not commonly thought of as being unnatural. I accept that the use of the pronoun ‘we’ was misplaced.
You asked to see copies of correspondence we received regarding your original article. We received a number of phone calls and, in confidence, I attach a scanned copy of one letter we received from a consumer. I hope you understand that I have removed the consumer’s name and address.
I regret that unfortunately, we have a strict no glass policy within the manufacturing area which means that photography is not possible. This is standard practice for food manufacturing, applies to ‘Prince or Pauper’, and there is no way for me to get around this.
John I have embarked on this email exchange with the hope that I could give you reasons to think differently about the nutritional value of mycoprotein. However, it looks as though we will always struggle to find a common ground which is a shame, at least in my opinion.
Email from John Briffa to Tim Finnigan – 16th April:
Thanks for getting back to me again.
You say that the DoH and FSA are satisfied that the evidence for the health benefits of saturated fat/cholesterol reduction is ‘compelling’, but this is meaningless unless this can be demonstrated. My belief is that this specific dietary approach is not broadly beneficial to health on the basis of existing science. So when someone claims it is, or alludes to its supposed benefits, then I see it as part of my job to challenge this.
You say you enjoy the scientifically challenging stance taken in my blog. But not on this occasion, it seems. Could that be because in this instance the challenge in part deflates the ‘message’ that Quorn is ‘healthy’ on account of it being low in fat/cholesterol?
Does it seem unreasonable to suggest that if you wish to use this ‘line’ in the marketing of your product then it is your responsibility to prove its validity? Until you or someone else can provide it, then it seems reasonable for individuals to express doubt about the usefulness of diets lows in saturated fat and/or cholesterol and the value of products promoting on this basis.
I regard this of importance because I believe the low saturated fat/cholesterol message represents misinformation, and allows some food manufacturers to sell some really not very healthy foods as ‘healthy’. I believe this to be of such importance that I will be shortly devoting a blog to this very issue, and will be including our correspondence in it as a sort of ‘case study’.
It seems odd to me that you have a ‘no glass’ policy in the manufacturing area. Can you explain the thinking behind it? And if I’m not allowed to see the manufacturing of Quorn and photograph it, maybe you could send some photographs along with a detailed description of the manufacturing process. This would help, I think, individuals decide whether Quorn is as natural as you claim it to be.