Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates believe fungus meat is the future of the fake meat industry, but even a billionaire’s endorsement cannot make the flaws of fungus meat disappear.
The fungus-based proteins in meat alternatives are formally known as mycoproteins. Mycoproteins are the main protein in several popular brands of fake meats including Quorn and Nature’s Fynd. Fungus-based meat alternatives tend to have fewer calories than real meat products, but the benefits stop there.
What is mycoprotein? Mycoproteins may be “fungus-based” but they are not mushrooms. In fact, Quorn removed the phrase “mushroom-derived protein” from its packaging after being sued by the American Mushroom Institute in 2002 for misleading labeling.
Mycoprotein is actually a processed fungal mold. The mold is fermented and grown in vats of glucose, ammonia, vitamin additives, and other substances to form a “fibrous dough” that can be turned into meat alternatives and some dairy alternatives, including fake cream cheese.
Three ounces of the fungal concoction contains half as much protein as three ounces of real chicken or beef. Fungus-based meat also contains half of the essential amino acid density of real meat. Given that three ounces of fungus-based “ground meat” has 110 calories and real ground beef has 164 calories, consumers would end up eating more calories just to recoup the same nutrition found in real meat.
For some consumers, missing nutrients are the least concerning aspect of fungus-based meat.
Because mycoprotein is a fungal mold, it has been tied to allergic reactions, including some fatal incidents, in those with mold allergies. Quorn was the subject of a 2015 lawsuit in which the family of Miles Begnco claimed ingredients in the fungus-based meat caused a fatal allergic reaction. Quorn denied that their product killed Begnco, instead maintaining that he suffered from untreated asthma. In less severe reactions, consumers reported suffering swelling of the face and tongue, itchiness, and difficulty breathing after eating fungus-based meat.
Quorn does concede on its website that its products have “the potential to cause allergic reaction” and warns consumers to “be mindful of their personal sensitivities when introducing this food into their diet.”
Beyond allergic reactions, some consumers of fungus-based meat have suffered bloating, diarrhea, and other digestive issues that are believed to be tied to the fiber or lactose content present in some fungus-based meat alternatives. Quorn states that the fiber in its product “may cause flatulence in some individuals” but added that the gas “soon disappears” — just hopefully not when standing next to anyone in an elevator.
Gates and Bezos may be betting on fungus meat but those who want to get their nutrients — or avoid eating fungal mold that grew in a cocktail of ammonia and glucose — will probably stick with real meat.