Healthy or not, new kinds of 'fake' foods raise new questions

For most of human history, our diet consisted largely of hunted, gathered, or fanned grains, vegetables, fruits, and animals.

It wasn't until after World War II that the contours of today's food supply began to take shape. Thanks to the wonders of modern chemistry, manufacturers could now thicken it, emulsify it, flavor it, color it, fortify it, and preserve it.

But along with convenience came junk. For every can of frozen orange juice concentrate, there was a packet of Kool-Aid. For every loaf of packaged whole-wheat bread, there was a Twinkie.

Suddenly, companies were tripping over each other in a race to concoct new "foods" by flavoring and coloring some combination of sugar, oil, water, and refined flour. You can still see their handiwork in the candy and snack-food aisles of your local supermarket. Add a couple of Cokes and you can go all day without eating a real food.

But junk foods don't have a patent on fake. Today you can buy soy "meat" and rice "milk." They may be imitation, but at least they're made from honest-to-goodness food ingredients. Some, in fact, are better for you than their "real" counterparts.

Then there's mycoprotein, which is the main ingredient in Quorn, a new line of fake chicken and beef. The manufacturer describes mycoprotein as "mushroom in origin." It's actually a fungus that's grown in huge fermentation vats. Mycoprotein is as close to mushrooms as human beings are to jellyfish.

That's why the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which publishes the Nutrition Action Healthletter, has filed a complaint with the Food and Drug Administration about the deceptive labels on Quorn products and the inadequate testing of mycoprotein. You can find a copy on CSPI's Web site (www.cspinet.org/new/quornpr02 28_02.html).

Quorn raises troubling questions about the nature of our food supply:

  • Do we want to eat foods made of traditional farm-grown ingredients or mold grown in vats? (I'm not a big vat fan myself.)

  • Is it possible to adequately test products like Quorn? The problem: They're too bulky to feed to animals in large quantities, the way scientists test food additives and pesticides. That makes it harder to determine whether Quorn causes cancer or reproductive problems.

  • Might new food sources cause allergic or other reactions? Products like Quorn introduce thousands of novel proteins into the human diet. That makes genetically engineered foods, which may contain minuscule levels of one or two or 10 new proteins, look trivial. The only human study of Quorn looked at 10 people who reported vomiting or diarrhea after eating the mycoprotein. While they didn't seem to suffer classic allergic reactions, their "idiosyncratic" reactions, as the researchers termed them, were certainly something you don't expect from faux chicken or beef.

    In the brand-name rating of meat substitutes in our March 2002 issue, we gave several Quorn products Best Bite ratings because they met our criteria for saturated fat and sodium.

    But considering the abundance of delicious meat substitutes made from soy, oats, mushrooms, and other natural ingredients, why anyone would want to eat Quorn is beyond me.

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