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If you were living in Europe, you might be having Quorn for dinner tonight. Maybe a Quorn quarter pounder or pot pie. Or perhaps you'd be adding ground Quorn to a Bolognese sauce or chili.
Quorn is an alternative to meat, and it is particularly popular now in countries affected by mad cow or foot-and-mouth diseases, where worries about health and cattle diseases have put meat substitutes into the limelight.
It has a Zeliglike quality, taking on the appearance and taste of whatever meat it's supposed to be copying. And Quorn entrees are lower in fat and saturated fat than many equivalent meat dishes, contain no cholesterol and are high in protein and fiber.
Though some Europeans have been eating Quorn (pronounced "corn") for years, it is not available in the United States, where for 15 years it has awaited approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Its maker believes the agency is close to giving it the green light. The FDA would say only that it hopes to reach a decision "in the near future."
Yet if Quorn starts appearing in American supermarkets, its maker, Marlow Foods Limited, will be faced with a challenge. "What is this stuff?" will be the question Americans will most often ask, predicts David Wilson, marketing director for Marlow, a subsidiary of AstraZeneca, a London-based pharmaceutical company.
The development of Quorn goes back to the late 1960s, when British scientists were looking for an alternative food source to help eliminate a possible world food shortage. They literally searched the world, only to select a mushroomlike plant growing in a field in Buckinghamshire, their own back yard.
To produce Quorn commercially, the cells of the fungi are fermented in giant vats using glucose, oxygen, nitrogen and other nutrients. The harvested cells, known as myco-protein, look and feel "like pastry dough," says Wilson. Egg white, a protein binder, is then used to keep it together. Flavorings and other ingredients _ depending on the taste profile of the final product _ are added, and then it's formed into the specified shape and heated.
The company says that the process does not involve any genetically modified ingredients and that it's similar to making other fermented products, such as yogurt, beer and cheese. But it does result in a new food, which is one reason why it is necessary for the FDA to approve it before it can be sold in the United States.
It would be like trying to get eggplant approved, says Sanford Miller, former dean of the graduate school of biomedical sciences at the University of Texas, who chaired a panel commissioned by Marlow Foods to review the safety of Quorn.
In 1999, Miller's panel concluded that Quorn does not cause reproductive or chronic toxicity and that is free of contaminants. It also cited the fact that thus far 400-million Quorn-containing meals had been consumed in the United Kingdom, with no evidence of intolerance.
Quorn was approved by authorities in the Britain in 1985, after about five years of review. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, was identified in Britain in 1986. The number of vegetarians in the United Kingdom has more than doubled since then (up to 5 percent of the population), and nearly half of the British have actively reduced their consumption of meat, according to a Gallup survey.
Quorn is now the top-selling meat-free brand in Europe, where it is widely available in supermarkets in Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden and Ireland. Restaurants, hotels, hospitals and school cafeterias prepare dishes made with Quorn. Marlow sells 170 different products in all, both fresh and frozen, ranging from deli slices to sausages, fillets and microwaveable entrees. Quorn is also sold ground or in pieces for cooking at home; the company's Web site (www.quorn.com) contains recipes, including Rocket Parcels With Italian Quorn Pieces and Mediterranean Quorn Kebabs.
If Quorn meets FDA approval, the U.S. launch will emphasize frozen chicken-style products, such as nuggets, tenders and cutlets, plus lasagna, says Wilson. Burgers, sausages and cold cuts eventually would be added.
At a tasting of Quorn products at the Washington offices of public relations agency Porter Novelli, Lilia Jordan, a freelance food consultant, prepared the myco-protein pieces in a variety of ways _ in a curried appetizer, with noodles and peanut sauce, in a stir-fry and in quesadillas. In those preparations, where meat plays a minor role, the substitution of Quorn blended in well with the rest of the ingredients and flavorings. In nuggets and a herbed fillet, where Quorn was the focal point, it did indeed "taste like chicken," It does have a slightly softer texture than chicken and, of course, is uninterrupted by gristle or connective tissue.
Quorn is an option for those who want "a meat taste without the saturated fat," says Keith Ayoob, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. "It has even less fat than chicken."
Without any added ingredients, Quorn contains 5 grams of fiber and only 2.6 grams of fat and .5 grams of saturated fat per 3-ounce serving. But most of the prepared Quorn dishes contain small amounts of added fat, so consumers have to look at the nutrition information on each product and pay attention to serving sizes, cautions Ayoob.
Ayoob also thinks the name may "throw people off," since it has nothing to do with corn. And Marlow has already gotten grief over the term "myco-protein." In a review of a new Quorn entree last June, the Independent, a London newspaper, asked if it might be the "least-appetizing word in the English language." The answer, according to the article, was "no." At least "not while "phlegmatic' is still in wide usage."