Back in the early 1960s, experts were concerned that the predicted growth in the world’s population would lead to global food shortages and widespread famine.
The British industrialist Lord Rank (aka movie mogul J Arthur Rank) was Chairman of the Rank Hovis McDougall group of companies (RHM). RHM was founded on the flour-milling business and was a major manufacturer of cereals, the main waste product of which is starch.
Lord Rank passionately believed that something needed to be done about the impending food crisis and briefed his research director, Dr Arnold Spicer, to investigate the feasibility of a process to turn starch into protein using some form of fermentation.
Dr Spicer and Lord Rank were agreed – the new food should first and foremost of course be safe for consumption by humans, in view of the predicted protein shortage, it should be of a high nutritional value and finally, it should taste great!
Previous attempts to create new foods proved that whilst it was possible to achieve great flavour and colour, it was texture that was proving the most problematic. Eventually, Dr Spicer and his team concluded that a fungus micro-organism could hold the key to solving the texture problem thanks to its filamentous cell structure.
For the first three years of his investigation Spicer focused his efforts on a Penicillium strain that was isolated from discarded surplus starch near an RHM factory. Although the organism performed well in a limited batch culture there were two issues – firstly, its protein content was too low and secondly, it simply didn’t grow satisfactorily in continuous culture to produce the quantities needed for commercial success.
In 1967 everything changed. The RHM team tested 3,000 organisms taken from soil samples around the world. Incredibly, the organism eventually identified as the most suitable candidate for further research came from afar afield as … a garden in Marlow in Buckinghamshire, barely four miles from the RHM Research Centre!
The organism was given the code A3/5 until 1974 when the UK Food Standards Committee established the name mycoprotein.
Some years later, the original organism was reclassified as Fusarium venenatum PTA 2684.
Mycoprotein is the key ingredient of the Quorn product range. Expert Quorn chefs have learnt how to get the best out of mycoprotein, resulting in a wide range of ready meals, grills, sausages, burgers and deli slices, as well as cooking ingredients like mince, strips and pieces.
Quorn products first came to market in the 1980s but by then, the threat of a global protein shortage seemed to have abated. So the Quorn range was instead launched as a range of versatile meat-free products which were welcomed with open arms by the UK’s vegetarian community.
The first ever mycoprotein retail product was a vegetable pie, sold in 1985. This was followed by the launch of Quorn pieces in 1990 and now there are over 90 products in the Quorn range.
With climate change threatening the availability of land for rearing livestock and the growing awareness of the environmental impact of meat production, it is interesting to reflect that mycoprotein may yet be set to fulfil its original mission; to provide the world with a nutritious, abundant, environmentally friendly protein.