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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!).

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).

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.

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