by Rachael Link, MS, RD
Do you know what’s hiding in your favorite meat substitutes? Few people realize that mycoprotein, the ingredient often found in popular vegetarian products like chicken nuggets, cutlets and burgers, is actually a type of single-celled fungus that’s been heavily processed, mixed with other ingredients and texturized to mimic the taste and texture of meat.
But is mycoprotein safe? Or should you skip this controversial ingredient altogether and opt for other meat replacements instead? Here’s what you need to know and why you may want to double check the ingredients labels on some of your go-to products.
What Is Mycoprotein?
So what is mycoprotein made of, and where can it be found?
Mycoprotein is a type of single-cell protein that is derived from fungi and produced for human consumption. The word “myco” actually comes from the Greek word for “fungus.”
It’s made by fermenting a type of microfungus called Fusarium venenatum. The fermented solids are then combined with egg whites, wheat protein and other ingredients, then texturized into meat-like shapes and packaged as meat substitutes.
In fact, it’s often added to mycoprotein vegetarian products because it’s high in protein and fiber, yet low in calories. However, in spite of the potential health benefits, products containing this protein remain a subject of controversy due to concerns about their safety and possible allergenic effects.
Potential Mycoprotein Benefits
- Promotes Weight Loss
- Supports Digestive Health
- Complete Protein
- Lowers Cholesterol
- Regulates Blood Sugar
1. Promotes Weight Loss
Mycoprotein is rich in protein and fiber yet low in calories, which is the perfect combination if you’re looking to lose a little extra weight.
Increasing your protein intake can help increase satiety and decrease levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone. According to one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, upping protein intake by just 15 percent decreased average daily caloric intake by 441 calories and also produced significant decreases in body weight and body fat. (1) Meanwhile, fiber can also help reduce appetite. It moves slowly through the digestive system, helping keep you feeling fuller for longer to ward off cravings. (2)
Several studies have looked directly at the effects of mycoprotein on weight loss. One study published in the British Journal of Nutrition actually showed that eating a meal containing this protein reduced caloric intake by 10 percent compared to a meal containing chicken. (3) Another study from the University of Leeds in the U.K. had similar findings, noting that mycoprotein worked by increasing satiety and reducing appetite. (4)
2. Supports Digestive Health
Mycoprotein is an excellent source of fiber, containing about six grams of fiber per 100 grams, which is up to 24 percent of the fiber you need over the course of the entire day. (5)
Fiber can have a beneficial effect on several aspects of health but can be especially useful in promoting digestive health. One 2012 review compiled the results of five studies and showed that increasing fiber intake was effective in increasing stool frequency in people with constipation. (6) Dietary fiber may also have a protective effect against conditions that affect the digestive tract, such as intestinal ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease. (7, 8)
3. Complete Protein
One distinct advantage that mycoprotein nutrition has over other types of meat substitutes is that it’s considered a complete protein. This means that it contains all of the essential amino acids that cannot be produced by your body and need to be obtained through dietary sources.
Getting enough protein in your diet is absolutely essential to maintaining your overall health. Not only does protein make up the foundation of your hair, skin, nails, muscles and bones, but it’s also needed to help build and repair tissues, produce important enzymes, and synthesize certain hormones.
A protein deficiency can have deleterious effects on your health, resulting in symptoms like a sluggish metabolism, impaired immune function, slow wound healing and difficulty losing weight. Those on a vegan or vegetarian diet are at an even higher risk of protein deficiency, especially if the diet is not well-planned.
4. Lowers Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found all throughout your body that makes up the membrane of your cells and aids in the synthesis of bile acids and hormones. Excess cholesterol, however, can build up in your blood vessels, which can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke over time.
Some promising research has found that mycoprotein may be able to help keep your cholesterol levels in check to reduce your risk of heart disease. A study from the University of London actually showed that mycoprotein was able to reduce total cholesterol levels by 13 percent, lower bad LDL cholesterol by 9 percent and increase good HDL cholesterol by 12 percent. (9)
5. Regulates Blood Sugar
High blood sugar can come with some pretty serious side effects. Left unchecked, sustaining high levels of blood sugar long-term can lead to an increased risk of skin conditions, nerve damage and kidney issues.
Mycoprotein is high in fiber, which can slow the absorption of sugar in the bloodstream and keep your blood sugar under control. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the effects of mycoprotein on blood sugar and found that consuming a milkshake containing it was actually able to reduce blood sugar by up to 36 percent compared to a control group. (10)
Mycoprotein Dangers and Side Effects
Although it has been associated with a number of potential health benefits, there are some serious mycoprotein side effects that should be considered as well.
In fact, organizations have been pushing for stricter regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to help warn consumers of the possible risks of consuming mycoprotein since at least 2002.
Multiple people have suffered severe reactions as a result of a mycoprotein allergy, which can cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and hives.
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, at least 2,000 reports have been collected from consumers who suffered allergic reactions, and two deaths have even been linked to consumption of productions containing mycoprotein. Mycoprotein allergies may actually be pretty common; one unpublished study even found that 10 percent of participants experienced symptoms like nausea, vomiting or stomach pain as a result of eating mycoprotein products compared to just 5 percent in the control group. (11)
The problem with mycoprotein vs. soy, shellfish, peanuts and wheat is that mycoprotein is not a well-known allergen, meaning that many people are probably not even aware they may be allergic until it’s too late.
Most are also completely unaware of what mycoprotein actually is, and unfortunately, food manufacturers haven’t always been up-front in offering an explanation on the label of their products. After all, fungus is pretty far down the list when it comes to appetizing ingredients. Many consumers also mistakenly believe that mycoprotein may be derived from other nutritious mushroom varieties, such as lion’s mane mushroom, cordyceps or reishi mushrooms.
However, as of 2017, Quorn, the main manufacturer of mycoprotein products, actually agreed to make the ingredients of their products clearer by stating directly on the label: “Mycoprotein is a mold (member of the fungi family). There have been rare cases of allergic reactions to products that contain mycoprotein.”
This comes as a result of a class action settlement that was filed on behalf of anyone who had suffered such allergic reactions to mycoprotein-containing products.
Mycoprotein is most commonly found in Quorn products, a brand of meat substitutes that includes a variety of products ranging from Quorn chicken nuggets to burgers and sausages.
Note that mycoprotein is different than other types of mushrooms, such as psilocybin mushrooms, turkey tail mushrooms and chaga mushrooms. These mushrooms are a type of fungi, but mycoprotein is made of a microscopic fungi that has been paired with a mix of other ingredients. Additionally, although they belong to the same fungi family, Fusarium venenatum looks much different than the common mushrooms that most of us are familiar with.
Mycoprotein vs. Meat
So how does the mycoprotein in popular meat substitutes compare to meat?
In terms of taste, the two are pretty comparable. Mycoprotein foods are designed specifically to mimic the taste and texture of real meat, and they manage to come closer than some other meat substitutes, such as tempeh or seitan.
Nutritionally, both are considered complete proteins, but mycoprotein products are actually lower in protein than meat. A 100-gram serving of chicken, for example, contains approximately 31 grams of protein while a 100-gram serving of a meatless chicken product made with mycoprotein contains less than half, with just 13.8 grams of protein. (12, 13)
However, while meat is lacking in fiber, mycoprotein contains a pretty hefty chunk in every serving. Not only can this benefit your digestive health, but it can also help support satiety and keep your appetite under control.
Where to Find and How to Use Mycoprotein
Mycoprotein is found primarily in Quorn products, which are available in many forms, including vegan chicken cutlets, meatless sausages and vegetarian burgers, and while some mycoprotein products are in fact vegan, most mycoprotein is made with eggs. This brand is widely available in most major grocery stores, typically found along with other vegetarian products in the freezer section.
If you’re able to tolerate mycoprotein without any adverse effects, you can easily swap these foods into your diet in place of meat to increase the protein and fiber content of your meals.
You can also incorporate them into your favorite recipes, including salads, tacos, stews, kebabs, pasta dishes and curries for a meat-free entrée.
Mycoprotein Recipes and Alternatives
If you’d rather skip the mycoprotein, there are plenty of meatless alternatives that you can start incorporating into your diet instead.
Mushrooms make an excellent meat substitute in most recipes due to their rich flavor and meaty texture. The protein in mushrooms and unique nutritional properties also make a healthy and nutritious addition to your favorite meat-free recipes.
In addition to mushrooms, other healthy meat substitutes that you can start incorporating into your daily diet include tempeh, natto, jackfruit, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Here are a few simple recipes that you can use in place of mycoprotein to deliver a hearty dose of meat-free protein:
- Mushroom Meatloaf
- Vegetarian Ceviche with Mushrooms
- Korean BBQ Jackfruit Tacos
- Black Bean Burger
- Vegan Chicken Wings
Mycoprotein was originally discovered in the 1960s by Rank Hovis McDougall, an English food company that’s been around since 1875.
Over 3,000 species of fungi were screened during the search for a cheap, sustainable, nutritious and palatable source of protein for human consumption, eventually leading to the identification of mycoprotein, a fungi that managed to fit all of the criteria.
However, after its discovery, there was significant concern over the potential negative health effects of this protein, and it went through a 12-year testing process until it was actually able to be sold on the market.
Today, although it has been subject of a good amount of controversy, products containing it have become popular meat replacements because of their versatility, protein content and flavor.
Many people have reported adverse effects to mycoprotein, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and hives. Most people who try mycoprotein products are also unaware that they are allergic, and it’s believed that an allergy may even develop over time, although more studies are needed on the potential allergenic effects.
If you do decide to consume food products containing mycoprotein, consume a small amount first to assess your tolerance and be sure to report any food allergy symptoms to your doctor immediately.
- Mycoprotein is an ingredient found in many vegetarian meat substitute products.
- It is made by fermenting a type of microscopic fungi and then combining the solids with egg whites, wheat protein and other ingredients before texturizing it into meat-like shapes.
- It is low in calories but high in fiber and considered a complete protein. It may help improve digestive health, promote weight loss, lower cholesterol and regulate blood sugar.
- One of the main its disadvantages is that it’s been shown to cause adverse reactions in many individuals who may not have realized they were allergic.
- Because of the protein in mushrooms, mushrooms make a great meat substitute. Other healthy meat substitutes include natto, tempeh, natto, nuts and seeds.
- If you do decide to give mycoprotein a try, be sure to pay close attention to any adverse symptoms and consult with your doctor if you have any concerns.
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