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New Frontiers In Vegetarian Foods

July 1, 2001
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Vegetarian food products are gaining popularity in both the vegetarian and mainstream sectors. Some consumers are turning to vegetarian food products simply because they are tasty and convenient.

The number of vegetarians in the US has risen from 1% to about 2.5% (95% confidence level) since 1997, according to a 2000 National Zogby Poll sponsored by The Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG), Baltimore, Md.

"Consumers are finding vegetarian food products much more accessible in mainstream supermarkets, contributing to their popularity," says Davida Gypsy Breier, consumer research manager for The Vegetarian Resource Group. "Dairy alternatives and meat analogs are gaining in popularity because of their convenience, good taste and added fortification."

Producing good-tasting vegetarian foods remains a key challenge for food formulators. Those who formulate new products can use a variety of spices, flavors, masking agents, and processing techniques to reduce undesirable flavors (see article on masking agents on page 63).

A line of myco-protein-based foods from the UK has a huge following in many countries abroad because it is tasty, convenient and has a large variety of items.

Novel Vegetable Protein

Quorn™ is the number one global retail brand of meat-free food products, according to company information. The Quorn brand name is registered to UK-based Marlow Foods Limited. Quorn foods were first introduced in the UK in 1985. Today, they are marketed in other European countries including Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden and Ireland. The company plans to launch its products in France this summer and intends to roll out across the entire EU in the next three years.

Quorn products are made from myco-protein, a vegetable protein in the mushroom family that is grown, harvested and prepared into meatless foods. In the US, the ingredient is pending FDA approval, expected this summer.

Myco-protein is made of Fusarium species in a continuous fermentation process. "We grow this incredible plant through fermentation in a similar way that cheese or yogurt cultures grow," says David Wilson, general manager of Quorn Foods, Inc., Riverside, Conn. (See the website http://www.quorn.com). The plant, a fungus, is rather like mushroom roots that are harvested. "It took about ten years during the 70s and 80s to scale up the process to an economically viable level," he adds.

While the plant is found in soil, the fungus is grown in a glucose medium in commercial production. The cells of myco-protein are grown by continuous aerobic fermentation in a sterile environment. The pH in the fermenter is controlled by the injection of ammonia, which also provides part of the nitrogen source for the cells.

The suspension of cells is taken into a continuously stirred tank reactor to reduce the RNA content (dry weight) in them from 10% to less than 2%. The suspension is heated with steam to 90°C (194°F) and dewatered by centrifugation before being cooled.

"It looks like pastry dough when it's harvested," says Wilson. "The roots are matted together-when you open it; you can see the strands that also have branching chains attached. The cross section of the strands is similar to chicken muscle fibers--the way the roots bind together to form a cohesive mass ."

In meats, muscle cells are held together by connective tissue. In order to obtain a similar texture in myco-protein products, the cells are mixed with a protein binder along with natural flavorings and other ingredients--depending on the final product--then heated to affect gelation.

In cooked systems, egg whites are used as a binder to give Quorn products a chewier texture. In cold systems, such as cold cuts, whey proteins are used. "We have tried other binding agents, such as various starches and gums, but found egg whites suit our needs in heat and serve applications," says Wilson. Egg whites help retain the fibrous composition the best, he adds.

Whole muscle meat-like textures can be achieved in formed products such as steaks or cutlets. Other shapes include tenders, patties, nuggets, crumbles, and sausages.

"A key feature of this ingredient is that you can put it on a stove top for 45 minutes, cook it in a sauce, and it won't disintegrate like some soy products, and it won't toughen up like beef or chicken because of the nature of the protein binding structure. The cell walls of the plant protect the moisture that is inside them--there is also a small amount of fat that naturally occurs in the mushroom protein, keeping the product tender and juicy."

Quorn products do not shrink during cooking because they do not lose any fat or water.

Health Benefits

Low fat, cholesterol-free myco-protein products are a good source of protein and dietary fiber. The harvested cells of myco-protein are paste-like in consistency and contain about 75% moisture, 11% protein, 9% total carbohydrates, 3% fat, and 6% fiber (65% beta-glucan and 35% chitin). The fiber is 88% insoluble and 12% soluble.

"Myco-protein has as much protein as an egg--the protein is very digestible and very high quality," says Wilson. Myco-protein contains nine essential amino acids and is similar in quality to that of casein, a milk protein.

Clinical studies show that the consumption of Quorn products may significantly reduce total and LDL ("bad") serum cholesterol levels, and occasionally raise HDL ("good") cholesterol levels. Other studies have shown that diabetics can benefit from incorporating myco-protein in their diets.

Studies in the UK have shown that Quorn foods have a positive effect on satiety--they satisfy the appetite for a substantial amount of time. This implies that Quorn may be used to control appetite and body weight because myco-protein foods are of low energy density.

Where's the Chicken?

One reason Wilson believes Quorn food products are so popular is because consumers are looking for healthful products, but they don't want a trade off on taste.

"The myco-protein product has an inherent mild mushroom flavor," says Wilson. "Our flavor requirements are much less than those for soy-based products," he adds. "With a more subtle flavor to begin with, we have no need for masking flavors which is a real advantage for us." The myco-protein products are flavored with natural flavors and spices such as black pepper, garlic and herbs.

"Getting that balance between great tasting products and building genuine nutrition and health properties has been the key food challenge over the last 10 years," says Wilson. "The more recent challenge is introducing our products to each market that we trade in across Europe. Each market has different expectations for taste and texture," says Wilson.

Wilson cited lasagna as an example of formulation variations amongst different cultures. Quorn Foods has a lasagna to suit each market. US lasagna is a multi-layered item filled with ricotta or cottage cheese and sweet tomato sauce, and spices. By contrast, UK lasagna is single-layered and has a more beefy-flavored tomato sauce. It is meaty, is not sweet, has a lower spice profile and has cheese only on the top.

"You can't make the assumption that one product is going to suit everyone's needs on a global basis, or even a regional basis," says Wilson.

Marlow Foods introduced a Quorn chicken-style roast late last year --in time for the Christmas holiday-- as an alternative to the traditional Christmas turkey or goose.

Other recent Quorn products include pasta sauces and fajitas that are sold in the "chiller cabinets" in the UK. The most popular Quorn products in the UK are beef style grounds and chicken style tenders that represent about one-third of the company's total sales.

For the US market, Wilson says the company will start with products Americans are familiar with, such as burgers, lasagna, fettuccini Alfredo and chicken-style tenders.

When consumers try Quorn products, a common response is "where's the chicken?" "Consumers are certain that there is chicken in our products, which is very encouraging," says Wilson.

Future Outlook

Quorn will be launched in the United States following FDA approval of myco-protein. Regional rollouts will follow the approval, which is expected this summer.

"We began discussing myco-protein with the FDA in the 1980s and, so far, it has moved through the process quite smoothly," says Wilson. Marlow Foods chose to have myco-protein assessed as a food additive so that it would pass through the most rigorous process available before being sold in the U.S.

Quorn Foods has enjoyed huge growth in sales since it went national in the UK seven years ago.

Myco-protein products have always been positioned as premium meat alternatives, not simply "cheap meat substitutes," notes Wilson. Most products in the US will be sold for an average of $3.50/box, similar to other premium meat substitutes.

"There is a huge opportunity in the US because the meat alternatives segment is still under development," says Wilson. The target in the US will be the health food and mainstream sectors.

Currently, the company is looking for a chef-spokesperson for Quorn products: mycophagists wanted! -PF

Sidebar: Upscale Tofu

Gone are the days when tofu was available only as a naked white block sitting alone in the produce aisle. Now it has many companions. Today's tofu is sold smoked, baked, crumbled, flavored, fried, marinated, and even as a dessert. According to Soyatech Inc., tofu sales continue to grow at an estimated 15% each year (see PF's April article on soyfoods).

"There are so many more flavors and forms of tofu products available now," says Davida Gypsy Breier, consumer research manager for The Vegetarian Resource Group, Baltimore, Md. (http://www.vrg.org). "We are no longer relegated to a plain white box of tofu in water."

Many new vegetarian food products were displayed at The Natural Products Expo in Baltimore last fall. Vitasoy USA Inc., South San Francisco, Calif., debuted its Azumaya® Baked Tofu in four flavors-Spicy Thai Peanut, Teriyaki, Mesquite and Chile Picante. The ready-to-eat products are made from non-GMO soybeans and all-natural ingredients. The cholesterol- and lactose-free product has 53 mg of soy isoflavones per serving. Each four-ounce serving contains 19 grams of soy protein. The product can be used in various ways-in salads, sandwiches, served over rice or pasta, or eaten straight from the package, according to a company spokesperson.

Vitasoy has turned tofu into a dessert item with its Azumaya Tofu Spoonables introduced last September. Nasoya, another Vitasoy brand, recently debuted its Tofu Temptations-a similar dessert product. Both brands of silken tofu desserts are available in vanilla, almond and chocolate.

More than 20 million Europeans have eaten Quorn over the past 16 years.

One-fifth of the households in the UK eat Quorn products each year. The business has grown from a few million dollars in sales in 1993 to $135 million in retail sales last year, with projections of $150 million in sales this year, for a compound annual growth rate of 37% in that time frame.

Quorn Foods has exhibited at the American Dietetic Association and Natural Products Show. In addition, Quorn premiered at the Food Marketing Institute show this year in Chicago.

Quorn has a 64% repeat purchase rate, a 16.1% penetration rate in the UK and a compound annual growth rate of 37% from 1994 to 2000, according to AC Nielsen data for year ending December 31, 2000.

Recent Articles by Laura Brandt

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