Brave new burgers 

Quorn is among us.

It's so space-age that it belongs in a science-fiction movie: a protein source cultured "like yogurt" in large vats, then formed into meatless patties that somehow taste just like chicken. Natural-foods stores across the country are stocking up on Quorn, but the controversy the product has spawned is spreading apace. And last month it arrived in a market near you.

According to Quorn's makers, Marlow Foods -- a division of the pharmaceutical megafirm AstraZeneca -- Quorn was first cultivated in the 1960s. Marlow describes Fusarium venenatum as a "mycoprotein, from the fungi family -- and a relative of mushrooms, truffles, and morel." British customers have bought that description for 17 years, making Quorn one of the most successful meat substitutes in the UK. But now that the product is making its way across the Atlantic, its American detractors say that Quorn is closer to a mold than a morel.

The anti-Quorn movement seems to be led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (www.cspinet.org/quorn), a thirty-year-old food-safety group that led the charge against Olestra; it disputes Quorn's claim to be mushroom-derived.

More companies are battling to maintain their position in a competitive and growing market -- vegetarian meat substitutes. According to ACNielsen and SPINS, a San Francisco-based provider of market research to the health and wellness industry, while sales of frozen burgers may have decreased five percent in the past year, other meat substitutes are gaining popularity. US sales of frozen products like Quorn have risen forty percent in the past year, to $41 million. And those figures represent major grocery store chains and mass merchandisers, not natural foods stores.

Quorn hit the East Bay a little more than a month ago, and the controversy seems to be spurring sales. Eric Fallstrom of Picadilly Circus in Berkeley says that he ordered Quorn for his store after several customers asked about it. Whole Foods in Berkeley and Walnut Creek have stocked Quorn products for a month. "It has been pretty popular," said Blake, who works in the frozen foods section of the Walnut Creek store. "People have come in and specifically said that they like the product."

But how does Quorn taste? I braved squeamishness and, according to CSPI, reactions such as vomiting and diarrhea, to try it. Like chicken, the white "flesh" tears away like meat but has a sponginess that more closely resembles tofu. Both the nuggets and the cutlets I sampled with the help of my roommates were coated in an herbed breadcrumb mixture; the cookie sheet we baked our samples on emerged from the oven shiny with exuded oil.

The more flavorful Quorn nuggets tasted most like ... prefab chicken nuggets: vaguely tasty, vaguely artificial. (Quorn also comes in chunks, like ground meat, for adding to stews.) I've never been a fan of McNuggets, but my roommates were so impressed with Quorn that they bought another couple of boxes for the freezer.

And we're all feeling fine.

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