Daily Footprint, #32 – Quorn

Hey folks! I’m continuing to look at the social and environmental impact of meat-alternatives; last time it was a newcomer, Beyond Meat, and now I’m going to take a look at one of the originals: Quorn. Since the 1960’s there has been a lot of interest in the idea of reducing our dependence on meat by exploring the option of eating microbes instead – single cell protein, as it came to be known. One microbe that emerged from this search is a fungus (Fusarium venenatum) that provides digestible protein with good coverage of the essential amino acids required for humans. It was commercialized by Quorn Foods in the UK and now you can find Quorn products all over Europe, Australia, and North America. In this intro video, Quorn’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Tim Finnigan, whips up a batch of Quorn in the kitchen.

For microbiology or fermentation enthusiasts, this video goes into some detail on the process for growing the Fusarium at commercial scale. For trivia enthusiasts, did you know that there’s a town in the UK called Quorn? It actually used to be called Quorndon, but they shortened the name because of confusion with another town called Quorndon in a neighboring county! Another “fun” fact: in almost every single conversation I’ve ever had about Quorn, people think I’m talking about corn (and just pronouncing it weirdly). Sometimes, those conversations go on for a surprisingly long time before the other person notices that something is amiss, which makes me wonder whether they had been thinking, aw bless him, he’s really into corn! They must not have it in Ireland. Or maybe they just weren’t paying close attention.

Still with me?

Quorn ingredients and sustainability

Although there has been criticism of meat-alternatives such as Quorn and Beyond Meat as being “highly-processed,” I think that this is all relative. Sure – it’s processed; but no more, really, than the process of making products like cheese and beer – and it’s a whole lot more pleasant than the process of making a meat sausage. And it might take some people a bit of getting used to the fact that it’s a fungus, but we already eat plenty of fungi, from mushrooms and yeast to the Penicillium species used to make certain cheeses and the Aspergillus species used to make soy sauce.

Many of the Quorn products are made using egg white as a binding agent. Quorn were awarded the Good Egg award by Compassion in World Farming for ethical sourcing of free-range eggs in the UK. In Europe, the term free-range is legislated to provide at least 4 m2 (43 ft2) of space per hen, a lot more than the same term specifies the US. For Quorn products made in the US, the standard for their egg-sourcing dropped to cage-free, which in many cases means a crowded barn with only 1 ft2 per hen. I don’t know the exact details on their egg sources in the US, but an upgrade to pasture-raised would be more appropriate to be in line with their UK standards. More on standards for US eggs here.

Perhaps the eggs will eventually become obsolete in Quorn products as they recently launched vegan products that use potato starch instead of eggs.

Quorn impact: land, water, and energy footprints.

You can find figures on the water, land and greenhouse gas (GHG) footprints for Quorn in their 2017 Sustainable Development report. For comparison, I’ll list the same metrics reported for Beyond Meat, covered in this recent post.

Quorn mince has a land footprint around 8 times smaller than that for beef mince. The reduction in land use for Beyond Meat burger was similar: a 10-fold reduction compared to beef.

The water footprint of Quorn mince is 10-times smaller than the footprint for beef mince. Beyond Meat reported water use in a more complex way, taking into account the water use versus water scarcity in that region (their peas are largely grown in regions like Alberta, Canada, where rainfall is fairly high) so their reported footprint (200-times lower than beef) is not directly comparable to that of Quorn.

GHG emissions for Quorn mince were reported to be 13-times lower than beef and almost 4-fold lower than chicken. The GHG footprint for the Beyond Meat burger was reported to be 10-times lower than beef.

I cross-checked the assumptions in both the Quorn and Beyond Meat life-cycle assessment (LCA) reports and the numbers reported for beef’s GHG and land footprints were similar. The beef water footprint reported by Quorn matches with other sources – around 15,000 liters of water per Kg of beef (imagine that!).

A bag of Quorn mince next to graphics indicating (as described in text below the images) that cooking with Quorn mince, instead of beef mince, once a week for a year saves enough energy to boil around 20,000 kettles, whiich is equivalent to around 1,800 cups of tea per week!
One of the graphics in the Quorn report is amusing. They express the energy saving in terms that English folk can most identify with: cups of tea! I only drink around 900 cups of tea per week, so I’m eating Quorn every fortnight!

The bottom line is that Quorn offers reductions in land and GHG footprints (compared to beef) that are similar to those for Beyond Meat. There’s still some room for improvement in the Quorn footprint, of course, but they are reporting decent progress on this. Quorn Foods seems to go to a lot of effort to continually improve the sustainability their process and products. I’ll tell you about one of the most exciting R&D projects next.

Food from agricultural waste

Currently Quorn mycoprotein is made from wheat, supplemented with a few other nutrients. You could say that it’s not that different to making beer (except that the product is food rather than alcohol). Quorn is involved in research to take this to the next level: instead of using plant starch as the source of sugar for their fermentation, they want to use cellulose. Cellulose is the most abundant carbon source on the planet and there are groups all over the world working towards its conversion into useful products. Some cellulose (for example, in wood) is already made into useful products (e.g., paper), but massive quantities of cellulose are produced every year by photosynthesis in plants and then burned or otherwise wasted. These are the structural parts of the plant that we don’t eat – rice and corn stalks, for example. To make food from these carbon sources would be a quantum leap towards a more sustainable planet. I’m very excited about this.

Quorn product packaging

Finally, I want to take a quick look at Quorn product packaging. I feel that they are doing pretty well on this front. As mentioned in the Beyond Meat post, companies in the UK and Ireland tend to be more reasonable when it comes to packaging. The Quorn burgers come in a sustainably-sourced (and recyclable) cardboard box – that’s it.

For some of their other products (like their tenders) they make larger “eco-packs” that can be resealed. After use they can be reused or even recycled, since they are made from HDPE (#2 plastic, widely recyclable, or at least it was until our current recycling crisis).

Two packages (the UK and US versions) of the new vegan spicy burger patties available from Quorn.
The new Quorn spicy burgers (UK package above, US below): one of the most ethical meat substitutes around. Be warned: they are spicy! They go really well with guacamole to temper the heat and add moisture.

Summary: Ethics of Quorn products

When I recently came across the Quorn spicy vegan burgers, I felt that they were one of the most ethical meat substitutes that I’ve found to date. The combination of low land, water, and energy footprints, vegan ingredients, and sustainable cardboard packaging tick the boxes on the issues that I most care about. 5/5 Green Stars.

31 thoughts on “Daily Footprint, #32 – Quorn

      1. understood, my friend!
        just saying, as a retired
        public health nutritionist,
        that nutritious, good tasting non-meat products
        can move beyond the look, feel and taste
        of animal products. keep up the good advocacy for our collective well-being 🙂

  1. Quorn makes great food. I discovered them over 10-15 years ago and I’m glad to have tried their products. I didn’t even know how sustainable their process was in making their food. Good job with the article!

    1. Glad to hear it!
      Yeah, they played an important role in helping vegetarians adapt to new diets when options were less plentiful.
      Thank you 🙂

      1. No problem. Quorn and the concept of mycoprotein is a huge asset since vegetarians and vegans can’t rely on soy alone for meat substitutes. It’s one reason why I was recommended that when I was younger.

  2. Thank you so much for this well researched review. You may be interested in the Ethical Consumer report done on the whole meat free market recently? https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/food-drink/shopping-guide/meat-free-sausages-burgers
    Unfortunately only subscribers may see the full report, but essentially Quorn and Cauldron, our most available brands here in the UK, only merited a score of 10.5 ( about mid ranking). This is a copy and pasted bit with what you might want to know….

    Best Buys
    Our best buys brands are either not based on soya, or source it from outside Brazil:

    Oumph! (Vegan)
    Taifun (Organic & Vegan)
    Recommended buys
    Also recommended are Fry’s, Upton Naturals and Tofurky which are vegan companies, followed by Goodlife. All these brands are palm oil free.

    Of the more widely available brands, Quorn and Cauldron are good options. They are not vegan companies, although some products are.

    Though Dragonfly came top of the table we had no information about where its soya came from.

    What not to buy
    What to avoid when buying meat substitutes:

    Does it contain GMOs? Genetically modified seeds and crops bind growers to powerful multinationals producing agricultural chemicals. These companies have been criticised for seriously exploiting small-scale farmers. Look for organic to be sure that you are avoiding GMOs, particularly for soya-based products.

    Is the company making meat products? Choosing a vegan or veggie product may be easier than finding a vegan or veggie company. If you want to make sure that you are not funding meat or dairy production at all, opt for a vegan or veggie company.

    Does it contain Brazilian soya? At the moment, it is best to avoid Brazilian soya if possible, as there is a major danger that it will be encouraging deforestation.

    Companies to avoid
    We recommend avoiding Tivall, a company owned by Nestlé. Nestlé has long been criticised over its policies in many areas, including baby milk and water.

    Hope that’s of use and they don’t mind me sharing it 😉
    Keep up the good work

    1. Hi Hilary,
      Thanks so much for going to the trouble to share that.
      I’ll be dealing with soy soon and the importance of farming location and practices.

      When deciding on a rating for the Quorn burger, I wondered whether I should rate it in general as a burger (i.e., including meat products) or only rate it in comparison to other vegetarian products.
      In the end, I decided that it’s best to group all products together, in which case many of the plant-based options would rank higher than most of the meat options.
      But even if I was comparing only among vegetarian and vegan products, I’d still award the Quorn vegan burger 5/5 Green Stars.

      But this is why we need user-generated ratings for ethical consumerism! Ethical Consumer is one of the best sources for ethical information and ratings, but it’s still only once source! And many individual organizations lack resources to dig as deeply as the would like, since there are so many products to cover in this world! I wonder if the Ethical Consumer report mentioned that Quorn is working towards making mycoprotein from lignocellulose? That was huge news to me and something that I’d like to support.

      I think it’s also important to recognize the difference between individual products from the same company. One might rank Quorn products as follows:
      1. Vegan Quorn burger in cardboard box.
      2. Vegetarian Quorn product (in the UK) packaged in a HDPE bag.
      3. Vegetarian Quorn product (in the US, where the egg standards are lower) in HDPE packaging.

      Thanks again for sharing it!

    1. Hi Brigid. I think Quorn has had to deal with more than their fair share of scaremongering but I haven’t seen any data that makes me concerned.
      With any protein, there’s a chance of allergy, but allergies to Quorn occur at a much lower rate than allergies to soy, nuts, dairy, or shellfish.
      It has a low glycemic index, which is good for gut (and pancreas) health.
      As a microbiologist, I’ve no problem with eating it, but I probably shouldn’t go any further as far as giving nutritional advice!

  3. That’s fabulous, just for the water and carbon footprint savings alone, not to mention reduction in heart disease. Thanks for this. :0)

    1. Thanks Pam! Yes, a big social/health impact too – and treating conditions like heart disease has a large footprint in itself!

  4. Just had a thought, the carbon footprint quoted for beef in this and your previous post on Beyond Beef were based on US figures, weren’t they? Do you know how Quorn compares to beef raised in Ireland?

    1. Hi Elaine! I found this paper comparing the carbon footprints of beef in Ireland, the EU, US, and Canada and they are not radically different:
      Western Canada has a lower carbon footprint for various reasons including more sustainable land management practices, and Ireland is about on par with the US and the rest of the EU (depending on farming practices used). So the comparisons quoted for Quorn and Beyond Beef are roughly applicable to Ireland too. Cheers!

        1. Hi Elaine, Thanks for the comment. No worries about the delay – we’re all super-busy these days 🙂
          See my reply to Brigid’s comment above – concerns about allergies are reasonable but almost every food can provoke an allergic response and the actual number of people who react to Quorn is pretty low (relative to peanuts, soy, etc.).
          I’m actually in Ireland at the moment – it would be great to meet up! Email me if you are interested (jmskrb at gmail dot com). Cheers!

  5. Hi J
    We get Quorn products here in South Africa. At my house we love their products (including the meat- eaters- dog included!), especially the traditional burgers and the chicken style fillets. Happy to see that you have given them a High 5! Glad to see that their packaging is as important to them as the product itself. Here’s the link to their SA website : https://www.quorn.co.za/about-quorn/packaging.
    And thanks for all your valuable work as always

    1. Thanks Amanda! The WRAP Plastic pact mentioned on the Quorn site is new to me. Very interesting!
      Glad you can enjoy your veggie burgers 🙂

  6. They took our quorn away! 🙁 Apparently the South African market is just too small to be viable. I did enjoy using it for the few months that it was available here. Oh well, the bottom line is the bottom line, I guess. There are plenty of locally produced soya products available, but that’s not my preferred meat alternative. I’m hoping that someone local will come up with something Quorn- ish in the near future.

Leave a Reply