Worthington: the home of Choplets and much more

Did you know that Worthington was once home to Worthington Foods, the world’s largest producer of vegetarian meat substitutes? Step inside our October exhibit for a look at the history of this innovative company.

Our August exhibit explored the history of the Harding Hospital in Worthington. As members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a healthy, vegetarian diet was important to the Harding family; it was also a part of the hospital's treatment regimen. In 1939, George Harding III founded the company Special Foods, which became Worthington Foods in 1945, to manufacture vegetarian meat substitutes.

The company's early development coincided with meat rationing efforts during World War II, and the company raced to keep up with the demand for vegetarian meat substitutes. After the war, the challenge became maintaining relevance when the artificial demand for meat substitutes evaporated. Worthington Foods spent the remainder of the 1940s, as well as the next several decades, innovating new products and techniques for creating tasty, meat-like foods out of vegetable protein.

The company’s most successful early product was Choplets, a steak-like product made from wheat gluten. The name was suggested by Dr. Harding III’s young son, George IV, following a taste test of the newly developed product. Choplets caught on quickly with diners, earning a spot on the menu at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York as well as on Pennsylvania Railroad dining cars in the 1940s.

Along with Choplets, Worthington Foods continued to develop a wide range of meat analogs, with names such as Proast, Numete, Tastex, Beta Broth, Beeflike, Prosage and Stripples. One of their products, Meatless Wieners, was popular with consumers but caused a stir with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which contended that "wieners" by definition could not be “meatless.” Further controversy was avoided by changing the product name to Veja-Links.

The company also pioneered the use of soy spun fibers to create a meat-like texture in their products. These new products, including Beeflike, Prosage and Stripples, required freezing rather than canning, and in the 1950s, Worthington Foods became the first company to release a line of frozen meat substitutes. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, the company opened branch warehouses in cities across the country to meet growing demand for their products.

In the 1980s, the company acquired the rights for the Morningstar Farms brand of meat substitutes, a name recognized by both vegetarians and omnivores. Worthington Foods was bought by Kellogg's in 1999, but the plant continued to operate in Worthington until Kellogg's closed it in 2005 and moved operations to Zanesville.

Although the plant is now closed, Worthington Foods played a crucial role both in developing vegetarian meat substitutes, as well as popularizing them over the decades. Vegetarians all over the country have Worthington Foods to thank for their innovation!