Vegetarian or vegan ‘meat’ products have seen a huge boom in recent years, with the UK meat substitutes market valued in 2022 at a whopping £623 million. Many people are now eating less or no meat, whether it’s from health, ethical or environmental reasons. After all, we probably all have heard of the environmental consequences of meat consumption – a study in 2021 found that meat accounted for 60% of greenhouse gases from food production.
Given vegan or vegetarian options are often marketed as a healthier choice, you’d naturally assume that Quorn is a great vegetarian protein source for runners. But what is it actually made from, and is it really a healthy choice? We asked nutritionist Kim Pearson to give us the full picture.
Is Quorn actually good for runners?
In general, highly or ‘ultra’ processed foods are probably not the healthiest choice you can make, even if they are a vegan or vegetarian option. ‘There is no denying that it’s a highly processed food. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that ‘plant-based’ automatically means healthy’ explains Pearson, ‘But the same rules apply to plant products as they do to animal products – the less processed the better’.
Quorn is made by fermentation of the soil mould Fusarium venenatum. In many of the Quorn products, it is then mixed with egg albumen to bind it together (in the vegan products, Quorn use a potato protein instead) and then processed in different ways into different textures and forms.
But while Quorn is certainly processed, it may still be a healthier choice than many meat products, which can also be highly processed and can also contain far more saturated fat. There is also plenty of evidence that eating red and processed meat can increase the risk of cancer, according to the World Health Organisation. And when it comes to those environmental consequences, vegetarian or vegan options are also generally more sustainable, using less water and land – and of course not involving any animal suffering.
Which Quorn products are the healthiest?
‘If you are opting for meat replacement protein sources, you are best off opting for the simplest versions with the least processing and the fewest added ingredients’ says Pearson. ‘These tend to be the most basic Quorn pieces, rather than options such as the battered replica fish fillets and pies, for example.’ So ideally, you should opt for Quorn as an ingredient or main protein within a dish, rather than the products that are more like ready meals.
Is it better for runners to get natural forms of protein rather than products like Quorn?
‘In a nutshell, yes!’ says Pearson. ‘Vegetarians are much better opting for eggs as a protein source than Quorn, which often contains rehydrated egg whites. There are a number of more natural vegan protein sources available too. That said, while variety and focus on natural, minimally processed foods is key, if you do fancy a meat substitute every now and then, Quorn is fine.’
What are the pros of eating Quorn?
‘The result of the fermentation process is mycoprotein, the key ingredient found in Quorn. Mycoprotein is a complete protein providing all essential amino acids which is rarely found in plant based protein sources. It is also high in dietary fibre, unlike meat’ explains Pearson. ‘According to Quorn, producing mycoprotein uses 90% less land and water than producing some animal protein sources.’
Can Quorn help aid recovery?
Yes it can. In fact, recent research from the University of Exeter showed that mycoprotein, the protein-rich source unique to Quorn products, stimulates post-exercise muscle building to a greater extent than milk protein.
The results, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that while those who ingested milk protein increased their muscle growth rates by an average of 60%, those who had mycoprotein increased their muscle growth rates by more than double this. So if you are organised enough to meal-plan in advance of a hard or long run, Quorn might indeed be a good choice.
What are the best natural vegetarian or vegan forms of protein for runners?
When it comes to getting protein in your diet as a vegetarian or vegan runner, we’ve rounded up the best natural sources of protein here.
Pearson adds that runners should, ‘Opt for protein sources like eggs, pulses (like beans, chickpeas and lentils), tempeh, quinoa and seeds. Good quality vegan protein powders can be used to boost levels if needed.’ Bear in mind of course that protein powders are processed too – though some more than others. For example hemp-based powder is minimally processed, while whey-based ones need more processing.
As a bench-mark, how much protein should runners be getting?
‘As a minimum, runners should aim for 0.8g per kg of body weight based on the ideal weight. Athletes should often look to increase this to 1.2-1.5g, however, needs may well vary depending on your individual requirements” says Pearson.