Mycoprotein: A Potential New Tool For Managing Cholesterol Levels?
Written by Dr George Pavis
One critical aspect of guiding individuals toward a healthier lifestyle is cholesterol management. In this blog post, we'll delve into what cholesterol is, examine current statistics surrounding elevated cholesterol levels, and highlight the crucial role that diet plays in this context. Furthermore, we'll shed light on a promising ally in cholesterol management – mycoprotein – and its potential mechanisms for reducing cholesterol levels.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in every cell of the body. It is crucial for the production of hormones, vitamins, and bile acids that aid in digestion. There are many types of cholesterol, which can fall into two broad categories:
• Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, which is often referred to as the “bad” cholesterol
• High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, often referred to as “good” cholesterol.
However, when total and/or LDL cholesterol levels become elevated, it poses a significant risk for cardiovascular diseases:
• Elevated cholesterol levels are a major contributing factor to cardiovascular diseases, which cause approximately 18.6 million deaths annually.1
• The World Health Organisation estimate that elevated cholesterol is directly linked to 2.6 million of these deaths alone.
• According to the Health Survey for England 2021, nearly 60% of adults aged 16+ have total cholesterol levels above the recommended levels.
The role of diet in cholesterol management
Diet plays a pivotal role in cholesterol management. For example, foods rich in saturated and trans fats can raise LDL cholesterol levels. Conversely, a diet high in fibre, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats can help lower LDL cholesterol and improve overall cardiovascular health.
Mycoprotein is a protein-rich, fungal food-source and key component of Quorn foods. Mycoprotein is also inherently low in saturated fat, making it align closely with current NHS dietary recommendations for cholesterol management. As it happens, a growing body of evidence has suggested that mycoprotein may have the potential to lower cholesterol in a variety of settings.
What does the research say?
The potential cholesterol-lowering effects of mycoprotein were first identified nearly 40 years ago2 and built upon by a series of studies in the early 1990s. These showed promising data that eating mycoprotein for 3-8 weeks reduces total and LDL cholesterol by approximately 10-20%.3,4
Recently, there has been renewed interest in how mycoprotein reduces cholesterol. For example, a study from the University of Exeter put a group of participants on a fully controlled diet for 7 days, where the primary protein source was either meat/fish or mycoprotein. Using powerful analytical techniques, they saw that blood concentrations of 45 different cholesterol and cholesterol-related molecules were reduced by up to a quarter in those who ate mycoprotein.5
These findings were then reinforced by a recent study led by University of Northumbria. The research team provided a group of participants either red and/or processed meat, or mycoprotein (as Quorn foods), for 14 days. Not only did they show that mycoprotein reduced cholesterol by 7%, but they also saw significant decreases in other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as waist circumference and blood pressure.6
Importantly, both of these studies were performed in relatively young adults, who had cholesterol levels within the recommended range to begin with. This shows that eating mycoprotein may be a promising tool for preventing elevated cholesterol levels.
What about in people who have elevated cholesterol?
Building on the early studies, the team back at the University of Exeter recruited a group of 82 adults with elevated cholesterol from all over the UK and provided them with either meat/fish or mycoprotein (as Quorn foods) for 4 weeks.7 By comparing blood samples taken before and after the 4-week period, they saw that cholesterol concentrations decreased by 5-10% in those who were provided mycoprotein. Moreover, the team found that participants were able to incorporate mycoprotein into their daily diets, as they reported eating over 80% of the foods provided. These findings, which have recently been published in Clinical Nutrition, suggest that eating mycoprotein may be an effective and easy-to-implement strategy to reduce cholesterol in those who display elevated cholesterol concentrations.
Summarising all of the research into the effects of mycoprotein on cholesterol to date, a recent meta-analysis of nine studies, including a total of 178 participants, showed that mycoprotein reduces cholesterol concentration by 0.55mmol/L.8 The authors concluded that the reduction is likely as a result in LDL cholesterol reduction, an effect like this, if confirmed by more research, would have significant implications for improving public health.
How does mycoprotein reduce cholesterol?
Although simply swapping meat products for those containing mycoprotein does in theory lower the amount of saturated fat in our diets, it seems that mycoprotein may play a more active role in lowering cholesterol. More work is needed to know for sure, but the high-fibre content and/or the specific type of fibre found in mycoprotein may be key to this.
Mycoprotein has a high content of the fibre β-glucan. This is also found in foods like oats and barley (although in a slightly different form to that found in mycoprotein), and comprises roughly 2/3rds of all the fibre in mycoprotein. The mechanism likely involves the fermentation of this fibre in the intestines, producing short-chain fatty acids like propionate9, which may reduce the amount of cholesterol produced by the body.10 In theory, this would cause total cholesterol levels to drop over time.
As healthcare and nutrition professionals, staying abreast of emerging research is crucial to offering well-rounded guidance. While traditional approaches to cholesterol management remain integral, the potential benefits of mycoprotein in reducing cholesterol levels offer an exciting avenue for further exploration. Encouraging patients to adopt a balanced diet that includes mycoprotein alongside other heart-healthy choices could be a promising step toward better cholesterol management and improved cardiovascular health.
Dr George Pavis is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter, investigating how nutrition can be used to improve health and combat disease. You can find out more here, or follow @GPavis on X to stay up to date with his latest research.
1 Roth GA, Mensah GA, Johnson CO, Addolorato G, Ammirati E, Baddour LM, et al. Global Burden of Cardiovascular Diseases and Risk Factors, 1990-2019: Update From the GBD 2019 Study. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2020;76(25):2982-3021. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2020.11.010
2 Udall JN, Lo CW, Young VR, Scrimshaw NS. The tolerance and nutritional value of two microfungal foods in human subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 1984;40(2):285-92. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/40.2.285
3 Turnbull WH, Leeds AR, Edwards DG. Mycoprotein reduces blood lipids in free-living subjects. Am J Clin Nutr. 1992;55(2):415-9. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/55.2.415
4 Turnbull WH, Leeds AR, Edwards GD. Effect of mycoprotein on blood lipids. Am J Clin Nutr. 1990;52(4):646-50. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/52.4.646
5 Coelho MOC, Monteyne AJ, Dirks ML, Finnigan TJA, Stephens FB, Wall BT. Daily mycoprotein consumption for 1 week does not affect insulin sensitivity or glycaemic control but modulates the plasma lipidome in healthy adults: a randomised controlled trial. Br J Nutr. 2021;125(2):147-60. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114520002524
6 Farsi DN, Gallegos JL, Finnigan TJA, Cheung W, Munoz JM, Commane DM. The effects of substituting red and processed meat for mycoprotein on biomarkers of cardiovascular risk in healthy volunteers: an analysis of secondary endpoints from Mycomeat. Eur J Nutr. 2023;62(8):3349-59. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-023-03238-1
7 Pavis GF, Iniesta RR, Roper H, Theobald HE, Derbyshire EJ, Finnigan TJA, et al. A four-week dietary intervention with mycoprotein-containing food products reduces serum cholesterol concentrations in community-dwelling, overweight adults: a randomised controlled trial. Clin Nutr. 2024. Online ahead of print. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2024.01.023
8 Shahid M, Gaines A, Coyle D, Alessandrini R, Finnigan T, Frost G, et al. The effect of mycoprotein intake on biomarkers of human health: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2023;118(1):141-50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajcnut.2023.03.019
9 Harris HC, Edwards CA, Morrison DJ. Short Chain Fatty Acid Production from Mycoprotein and Mycoprotein Fibre in an In Vitro Fermentation Model. Nutrients. 2019;11(4). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11040800
10 Wolever TM, Spadafora PJ, Cunnane SC, Pencharz PB. Propionate inhibits incorporation of colonic [1,2-13C]acetate into plasma lipids in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995;61(6):1241-7. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/61.6.1241