Researchers at the University of Exeter found that mycoprotein — which is derived from a type of soil fungus — is better at supporting post-exercise muscle building than animal sources such as milk protein. Mycoprotein is the main ingredient in all Quorn Foods products.
The study looked at how well milk protein and mycoprotein were digested in 20 young men while at rest and after strenuous resistance exercises. The researchers said the protein allows amino acids to increase in the bloodstream and become available for muscle building.
The young men who had milk protein increased muscle-building rates by up to 60%, researchers found, while those who had mycoprotein increased their rates by more than twice that.
This is not the first study by the university that compares the muscle-building ability of mycoprotein and milk protein. A similar study in 2017 found mycoprotein consumption in 12 young men resulted in the slower but more sustained availability of amino acids and insulin. They said that could indicate conditions were right for muscle building, and that mycoprotein may be substantially equivalent to animal-based protein.
The findings could be significant not just for Quorn but for those looking to switch to more plant-based protein sources. Their reasons include health and the environment, to maintain and build muscles or to increase a person's training regimen. Plant-based meat alternatives have grown in popularity, with retail sales jumping 23% from 2017 to 2018 to more than $760 million, according to Nielsen data.
Quorn is understandably eager to scientifically vindicate its mycoprotein ingredient since it's been controversial for years. The company settled a class-action lawsuit in 2017 filed by a Los Angeles woman claiming its products violated federal and state false advertising and unfair business practices laws. As part of the deal, it agreed to modify the wording on its packaging to reveal the main ingredient is mold. It has also denied a wrongful death suit filed by the parents of an 11-year-old boy with a mold allergy who died of anaphylactic shock in 2013 after consuming a Quorn Turk'y Burger.
While mycoprotein is designated Generally Recognized as Safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has advocated for its revocation since 2011 following reports of adverse reactions. Barring that, the group would like the FDA to require prominent warning labels on all Quorn products.
Despite these problems, Quorn has managed to persevere. It has introduced vegan products, refrigerated sausages and chicken strips. Its 100 different products are now distributed in 19 countries, including the U.S. where Walmart began selling Quorn items in 2012. Sales in the U.S. jumped 35% in 2017, and the company has projected it will be a billion-dollar business by 2027.
Whether studies like the University of Exeter's will have any effect on product sales remains to be seen. It's possible more food makers will explore using mycoprotein in their products since it contains complete protein. Studies show it may have a beneficial effect on weight loss and reduce total cholesterol and blood sugar. But since there are many other plant-based protein sources on the market today, companies may also decide mycoprotein is not worth the risk.