Worthington Foods (1939 - ): Work With Soyfoods

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and
Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

©Copyright 2004 Soyinfo Center, Lafayette, California

Worthington Foods is the largest and most innovative U.S. company making meat analogs and vegetarian entrees. They pioneered the development of spun soy protein fibers in meat analogs in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Their Morningstar Farms line of soy-based meatless meats, introduced into supermarkets and grocery stores nationwide in 1975 and widely advertised, provided millions of Americans with their first experience of soy used in this way.

The Founding (1939) and Founders. The forerunner of today's Worthington Foods Inc. was Special Foods, founded in 1939 in Worthington, Ohio by Dr. George Harding Sr. (a relative of U.S. President Warren G. Harding), Elwin Knecht, and Bill Robinson. Dr. Harding, a Seventh-day Adventist, was head of the Harding Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital that was founded by his father in 1916 and followed Adventist meatless diet and healing practices. Dr. Harding felt that the meat analogs (especially Protose) then produced by J.H. Kellogg's Battle Creek Food Company, America's first producer of "meatless meats," were the best he had ever tasted. Being on the board of Madison College in Nashville, Tennessee (which made its own analogs), he knew it didn't take much to start a small food company. He also knew that similar foods were being prepared in the kitchen of the Adventist-run Washington Sanitarium in Washington, D.C. Knecht, a classmate of Harding's at Loma Linda University in California and a graduate dietician, had first learned how to make meat analogs in about 1930 as a cook at the Loma Linda Sanitarium. By 1938 he was foodservice manager for the Harding Hospital, where he was known for his ability to make delicious meatless meats. Bill Robinson, an Adventist friend and a patient of Dr. Harding's, lived in the community and was a former salesman for the Battle Creek Food Company; he had sold meat analogs but had been laid off during the Depression. Actually the prime motivation for starting the new company was to attract young families to the founders' small church and church school by providing employment opportunities. This would allow the school to grow to a viable size.

The project was launched in January 1939, when Dr. Harding borrowed $5,000 against the mortgage on his home. The company started on a shoestring. Bill Robinson was hired as the administrator and was the only salaried employee for the new company, which was incorporated later that year as Special Foods, Inc. In the little plant, built to look like a colonial-style house so that it could be sold as a home if the food company failed. Food manufacturing was done in the basement, offices occupied the first and second floors, and the storeroom was on the third. Product development was done when B.J. Knecht would bring in new products for taste tests; he had to be coaxed to write down his recipes, so that they could be duplicated. It was definitely a family operation (Twomley 1981).

The group's first product, introduced in 1939, was Proast, a dark gluten-based meatloaf analog made with wheat gluten, peanuts, and a little defatted soy grits or flakes; it resembled Battle Creek's Protose. Next came Numete, a light nutmeat loaf made with ground peanuts, corn flour, salt, and yeast, resembling Battle Creek's Nutose. Another famous early product, introduced in 1941, was Choplets; the name had been suggested by Harding's 11-year-old son. Resembling Dr. Miller's Cutlets, Choplets were made of wheat gluten and packed in a broth of yeast extract and mushroom broth; they were a unique best-seller into the 1960s. Served to patients at the hospital, the new foods (of which only Proast contained soy) were an immediate success.

Sales grew to $20,000 by early 1941. But Bill Robinson, a salesman at heart, did not enjoy the worries and pressures of managing a small company. So he persuaded his old classmate Jim Hagle, then Assistant Administrator of the Hinsdale Sanitarium at Hinsdale, Illinois, to consider working with the new company. Hagle agreed to come on board if Harding would loan him the money to buy 15-20% of the company's stock. The deal was made, and it proved to be a turning point in Worthington Foods' history. Robinson left in 1942, Hagle became secretary, treasurer, and manager, and Dr. Harding continued as president.

Dr. Dale Twomley, Dean of the Andrews University School of Business, where Hagle was a business major from 1931 to 1935, in an excellent biographical sketch of Hagle, described him as "an uncommon businessman." As president of Worthington Foods and administrator of Harding Hospital for 35 years, he stepped carefully to avoid compromise in order to make more money. A deeply religious man and a vegetarian, as well as an excellent businessman and leader with high principles, Jim Hagle played the key role in building Worthington Foods into the major company that it is today.

New Developments in the 1940s. Things soon began to happen at Worthington Foods. After Hagle's first year, sales had increased 400%, to $80,000. During World War II, as meat was rationed and its prices soared, there was a growing interest in meat analogs, and several hotel and restaurant chains began to use Worthington's products. But there was also strong competition from other Adventist producers, all of which were larger than Worthington in 1941: Madison Foods, Loma Linda Foods, Battle Creek Foods, and Dr. Harry Miller's International Nutrition Laboratory. Yet Worthington soon took the lead in sales of meat analogs, and in the areas of nutritional and technological research, and product development. This later became a prime factor in Worthington's growth and success. In 1941 two new soyfoods were introduced: Canned Soybeans (plain or with tomato sauce in 17­or 30-ounce cans) and Sandwich Spread (with chopped olives, in 10-ounce cans). In 1945 Choplet Burger, the company's first product and meat analog with soy as a main ingredient, was introduced. Sold in 30-ounce cans, it had a texture like hamburger plus the famous Choplet flavor; it could be shaped into patties and fried. In 1946 soy sauce (purchased from another manufacturer) was introduced in 4.5-ounce table dispenser bottles. 1949 saw the introduction of both Soyloin Steaks (great name!, made by mixing ground gluten pieces, not suitable for the Choplets with defatted soy grits or flakes, then shaping the mixture into patties), and of Meatless Wieners (in a 19-ounce can), renamed Veja-Links in 1954. The soy in each of these products was generally defatted soy flour, grits, or flakes used both to complement the very low quality protein in wheat gluten and to work as a filling and binding agent.

In December 1945 Special Foods, which had operated during the war as a partnership including Hagle and the Harding family, was incorporated as Worthington Foods, Inc. In 1948, when Dr. Harding left to become president of Loma Linda University, Hagle became president of Worthington Foods. By the end of the war, sales were roughly $500,000 a year (a 25-fold increase in 5 years). A new plant had to be built. Shortly after the war, Alan Buller became general manager and Warren Hartman was hired as head of research. They were among the "core of good people who stayed with us through the years," to whom Hagle later attributed so much of the company's success. Soon the company developed their own sales force, using men who were vegetarians and who used and believed in the products. Sales grew (Twomley 1981).

In September 1949, Robert Boyer (see Chapter 67 visited Worthington to discuss his new idea for spinning soy protein fibers and to offer them a license. Hagle was immediately excited with the idea but the company was reluctant to take a license until there was a source of soy protein fiber. So Boyer went on his way, not to return for 7 years. During this period Worthington's market was limited primarily to Seventh-day Adventist members and institutions.

Acquisitions and Analogs (1950-69). In June 1950 Worthington Foods bought up half of its first competitor, acquiring the rights to manufacture and market the meat analogs formerly produced by Dr. Harry Miller's International Nutrition Laboratories, including Miller's Cutlets, Cutlet Burgers, and Vegetable Stew . . . none of which contained soy. The rights to the rest of Miller's products (including his best-selling Soyalac soymilk) and his plant in Ohio were purchased by Loma Linda Foods.

In 1954 Worthington began marketing its first soymilk, Soyamel, sold in liquid form in 1-pound cans. Instant Soyamel was introduced in 1956, using isolated soy proteins manufactured by the Gunther Co. in Illinois, to give both an instant (powdered) and regular (liquid) product in plain and malt flavors, sold in 12-ounce, 3-pound, and 15-pound sizes. This was the world's first soymilk based on isolates. In 1961 a fortified Instant Soyamel was put on the market (not thought of or marketed as an infant formula) and in 1966 a Banana Beverage Soyamel. Other products containing soy introduced in the 1950s were Entree in Tomato Sauce (1954; 20-ounce can), Entree in Mushroom Gravy (1954; 4.5-ounce can), Meatless Wiener (1954; 14-ounce can), VP ("Vegetable Protein" 1957; 20-oz. or 4.75-pound cans), Kreem Chee (natural white or pimiento; 6- or 16-ounce cans), and Fry Sticks (1957). Indeed the 1950s were a time of great innovation at Worthington with new vegetarian soyfoods, and also a period of large-scale expansion of the business.

But Worthington's "big break" came in the late 1950s with the decision to go ahead in developing Robert Boyer's spun protein fiber idea into a new line of vegetarian meat analogs. In 1956, when Boyer returned to America from England, where he had been working with Unilever on his fiber project, he went immediately to Worthington. The company was now ready to buy the rights to his patent for the health food industry. Boyer was invited to work as a consultant in the lab at Worthington and the result was, over a period of several years, the development of a new line of products, beginning with chicken-like textures. But the actual manufacture of these products presented difficulties, for the only soy protein isolates (the basic ingredient in the spun fibers) then available were industrial grade products, made without concern for bacterial levels or flavor. Boyer convinced Ralston Purina, one manufacturer of industrial-grade isolates, to invest in a new plant that made food-grade soy protein isolates then spun them into fibers using Boyer's license. It would have been too expensive at that time for Worthington to spin their own fibers. By 1956 or 1957 Ralston's new plant was in production with a capacity of 10,000 pounds a day of fresh white fibers, looking (named) like silky long ropes. Worthington agreed to take all this production, although their market was not yet large enough. Yet according to Hagle, "Sales took off and we had hit a new product. The Adventists and the vegetarians thought it was great."

At Worthington, Ralston's freshly spun fibers were cut, mixed with binders (such as egg albumen), flavors, colorings, soy oil, nutrients, etc. and made into meat analogs. Tests were showing that Worthington's familiar methods of canning their products were not working with the new spun soy protein fiber products. They deteriorated in flavor and texture under the high canning temperatures. So Worthington made the bold, complex, and costly decision to sell the new analogs in frozen form. Yet it paid off; sales increased sharply and by being the first to offer both the new spun protein products and any meat analogs in a frozen form, Worthington jumped ahead of its competitors by 10 years.

In 1962 Worthington Foods began commercial production and marketing of its first new spun protein foods in the form of frozen chicken analogs. Fried Chicken Style was a deep-fried product that resembled fried chicken and was sold in 6 ounce or 15 pound portions, frozen or canned. Sliced Whitemeat Style, resembling the white meat of chicken, was packed in 6-ounce portions or bulk rolls. At about this same time the company began to use the word Soyameat to refer to its canned meat analogs made from spun soy protein fibers. By 1966 Soyameat came in the forms of Fried Chicken, Sliced Chicken, Diced Chicken, Sliced Beef, Diced Beef, and Salisbury Steak. It is interesting to note that the spun protein fibers were first used in meat analogs rather than simply as meat extenders.

Worthington was also using increasing amounts of plain food-grade soy protein isolates in its products. Starting in the late 1950s both Ralston Purina and Central Soya had invited Worthington to try their powdered isolates and some prototype food products. Soon Worthington was using small amounts of the isolate in their gluten and nut products for both their functional and their complementary protein properties. Gradually the amount used was increased.

During the 1960s Worthington added only two new, traditional-type soyfoods to its product line, Patties (1961) and Numete (1966) (Ingreds?). The same year? Worthington was making tofu, but not on a commercial scale. By now, much of the line was labeled "kosher."

In 1960 Worthington acquired the entire assets of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg's Battle Creek Food Company of Battle Creek, Michigan, including the patents on various soy-based meat analogs.

In 1964 Madison Foods (Madison, Tennessee), an Adventist-run food company and competitor of Worthington, had been turned over to the Adventist Southern Union Association and become a division of the Nutrition International Corporation (NIC). By 1966 Worthington had acquired NIC and its pioneering subsidiary, Madison Foods - largely because Worthington wanted Infa-Soy, a liquid soy formula).

Starting in 1966 Worthington began spinning its soy protein fibers, buying its isolates from Ralston Purina and Central Soya, then using a modified version of the process described by Boyer in his landmark 1954 patent (Ref??).

Worthington's next big break came in 1969 when Stanford University?? (Ref??, SRI??) published a special report on vegetable proteins as part of its service called President's Service. In the report Worthington Foods was referred to as a leader in the field of meat analogs and its operations were praised extensively. Soon Hagle began to receive calls and enquiries from many large companies from around the world. Worthington was facing growth pains, realizing that there was a huge potential worldwide market for their products, that as a small company they did not have the capital to reach this market, and that if they did not do something much larger corporations would move in and take over the entire industry. Hagle finally decided he must choose one of four possible courses: (1) work out a relationship that would make possible a merger with Worthington's biggest competitor, Loma Linda Foods; (2) go public and raise stock to raise a large amount of capital; (3) merge with some other company; or (4) sell out altogether. Hagle favored the first plan, which he felt would benefit the Adventist church and end past rivalries. Yet after 3 years of negotiations, no satisfactory agreement could be reached; the church insisted on owning 51% of the stock in the new company and Hagle felt that the church was not an appropriate institution to be running a big business. Hagle was disappointed in the outcome, but other big corporations (such as Ralston Purina, Quaker Oats, Coca-Cola, and Staley) were ready to offer ten times the company's book value to acquire it. Eventually, however, it was Miles Laboratories (producers of Alka-Seltzer) who offered the best price and terms, including the guaranty that any product sold under the Worthington brand would conform to Adventist standards.

The Big Time Then Back Home Again (1970s and 1980s). In March 1970 Miles officially acquired Worthington Foods, which then became the glamour company of the industry. Sales at the time of the merger were about $6 million a year; 2 years later they had reached $18 million a year and were growing rapidly. During the 1970s the research staff was expanded from 5 people to 50 and the research budget grew to about $2 million a year.

Miles soon bought a large food production plant in Schaumburg, Illinois, with lots of frozen storage space, and began to develop a new line of meat analogs for national distribution. These were first sold commercially in limited test markets in 1972. Based on the response, in 1974 Miles/Worthington introduced nationally their new line of textured soy protein breakfast meat analogs under the Morningstar Farms label. The three initial products, Breakfast Links, Breakfast Patties, and Breakfast Slices (substitutes for sausage and ham) were launched with a $7.5 million television advertising campaign. Although General Mills had been on the market since the mid-1960s with Bac-O's (imitation bacon bits), it is fair to say that the Morningstar Farms products represented the first line of modern meat analogs (rather than condiments) to be sold at supermarkets nationwide. Lublin (1977) in the Wall Street Journal documented Miles' "soybean saga." About 10 million American families tried the Morningstar Farms breakfast line in the first 18 months after its introduction in 1974, but sales after that failed to measure up to the expectations. Lublin reported that Miles had chalked up pretax losses of $33 million on its meat substitute products.

An improved version of the products was prepared in late 1977 and again promoted nationwide with extensive advertising as "Cholesterol Free, No Animal Fat, Protein Rich." Morningstar Farms products found in supermarkets in 1979 included Breakfast Links, Leanies, Grillers, Breakfast Strips, and Luncheon Slices. But the Morningstar line did not succeed. While others acknowledged that Miles/Worthington was "probably 25 years ahead of its time," promotion was gradually withdrawn and sales dropped. As of 1981 the future of the Morningstar Farms line was uncertain??. It may be dropped and Worthington may go back to making foods primarily for the vegetarian market.

By the late 1970s most producers of meat analogs agreed that the general market for these products in the US had been disappointing, however, the Adventist or "motivated" vegetarian market continued to show an increase every year. By 1974 Worthington produced over 45 varieties of meatless meats. Although no precise sales figures are available on the meat analog market size, it was approximately?? $30 million a year in 1980; Worthington had about two-thirds of this.

In late 1977 Bayer AG, Germany's huge maker of Aspirin, bought Miles. Since Bayer is fundamentally a chemical and not a food company and since they are dissatisfied with Worthington's profit performance, what they will do with Worthington remains uncertain?? By 1981 Miles was planning to pull out of the Morningstar Farms line; they may?? try to place it in the natural food market like Health Valley products. If Worthington goes up for sale, one potential buyer will be Sanitarium Health Foods, the Australian Adventist organization that since April 1980 has run Loma Linda Foods and Granose in England.

In about 1976 Worthington introduced a new line of "third generation" meat analogs, made using an entirely new and secret process in which, apparently??, textured soy concentrates were used with or in place of spun soy protein fibers to give an improved texture. The most popular of these were Stakelets, Chik Stiks, and Fillets (fish analog). Then in 1980 Worthington expanded this new line to include ready-to-eat, heat-and-serve vegetarian entrees, including the best-selling Veelets Parmesano, Vegetarian Lasagna, Pizza, and Stakes au Sauce.

In 1981 Worthington manufactured and marketed three dry foods, 20 canned foods, and 27 frozen foods (meat analogs). The dry foods containing soy were regular and fortified Soyamel and Granbuger (unflavored textured soy flour). The more popular canned products containing soy were the various "Soyameat" products (Prime Stakes, Fri-chik (sp??), Chicken Diced, and Beef Sliced), Veja-Bits, Numete, Non-Meat Balls, Veja-Links, Super-Links, and Saucettes. Popular frozen products containing soy as a main ingredient were Stakelets, Chik Stiks, Stripples, Sliced Chicken, and Prosage. These generally contained spun soy isolates or textured soy concentrates.