In case you hadn't noticed, the medicinal mushroom market is on fire. With an expected growth rate of 9.85% in the next six years, soon you won't have to defend drinking mushrooms to your judgy Aunt Sally.
And while this is overall a very good thing, with popularity comes imitators, knock-offs, and downright scam artists. Even now, the market is flooded with products that tout the incredible benefits of mushrooms while only possessing scant amounts. Read on to learn how you can tell the imitators from the real thing.
In 2017, Nature published a study by US Pharmacopeia that found of the 19 different reishi mushroom supplements tested, only 5 had adequate amounts of actual mushrooms. 58% didn't even have triterpenes, one of the most beneficial compounds found in reishi, responsible for its cancer-fighting, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, and calming properties. And 13 of the products lacked beta-glucans, the compounds that support our immune system and reduce inflammation, that medicinal mushrooms are celebrated for.
So what was in these supplements? Grain filler. It’s a sneaky trick, and it works because grain filler is essentially a polysaccharide, AKA a carbohydrate. And because mushrooms are naturally made up of certain beneficial polysaccharides, like chitin and beta-glucans, ineffective mushroom products can boast high levels of polysaccharides, leading the consumer to think they're receiving the benefits of beta-glucans when in reality they're just getting a boatload of carbs.
But lest you think there's some evil scientist shoving grain filler into these products in the dead of the night, the reality is much less exciting and much more obvious. But first, a quick primer on the different parts of the mushroom used in medicinal mushroom products.
The Mushroom Life Cycle
Fungi, also known as basidiomycetes, are made up of three parts that develop throughout their long life: spore, mycelium, and mushroom. Spores are all around us, invisible to the eye, sometimes wreaking havoc on our health but more often than not doing a silent job of making the world go round. In fact, every breath you take likely contains between one and ten spores. When things work in the spores' favor, they will germinate and begin to grow hyphae, long filaments (think hollowed-out spaghetti) that fuse to become mycelium.
Now, here's where things get weird. Since fungi can't make their food from photosynthesis (like a plant) and don't have a mouth (like an animal), they have to get creative. So the mycelium spreads out underground, forming a giant network, producing enzymes (proteins) that feed off plants and decomposing animal sugars, breaking down the biological matter, and returning it to the soil. And when we say a giant network, we mean it. The largest living organism on earth is a network of mycelium that grows underneath the Malheur National Forest in Oregon. It stretches for more than five and a half miles and is estimated to be over 2400 years old! And lest you think that mycelium are simply opportunistic scavengers, in addition to creating healthier soil, thanks to that giant network, they can deliver water and nutrients to plants from places where their roots can't reach, helping them to grow. So the fungi get to eat them in the end. They've earned it.
When conditions are right, the mycelium will produce a beloved fruiting body, AKA a mushroom, whose job, like any fruiting body, is to protect and spread the seeds, or in this case, spores. When the mushroom comes of age, it will produce spores, which are then distributed by wind and animals, starting the process all over again.
Fruiting Body Versus Mycelium.
So what's better for the consumer? Many of the health benefits of functional mushrooms come from the fruiting body, where most beta-glucans are found. Compared to mycelium (which, for commercial uses, is generally grown on grain instead of wood, animals, or plants), mushrooms contain more than 30 times the amount of beta-glucans.
So, remember how we said there's no evil scientist? The grain filler that's choking up those products likely comes from the grain that the mycelium is grown on, which, while perhaps innocent in the larger scheme of things, contains no beta-glucans.
However, mycelium has got plenty to offer. Preliminary studies on rats with neurodegenerative diseases have shown mycelium to delay neuronal cell death and promote nerve regeneration in rats with neuropathic pain. Of even greater promise is the eco-friendly applications mycelium offers. Mycelium is already used in plant-based meat alternatives, construction materials, and durable packaging that might replace Styrofoam once and for all. It has also shown promise as a bioremediation tactic to clean up toxic spills and contaminated soils, as well as breaking down agricultural and industrial waste.
In short: mycelium is great, it’s just not the place to go looking for health benefits.
To be effective, 750mg is generally accepted as a baseline to derive any actual benefit. At Earth & Star, our beverages contain 2000 mg per can–500 mg each of Lion's Mane, Reishi, Cordyceps and Chaga, producing an entourage effect that amplifies their benefits.
How to Get the Real Thing
The most important thing you can do? Read the label! Buy products with 750 mg or more. Don't be fooled by a high polysaccharide count; look for the beta-glucans. Contact the company and ask them straight up! And if you want to put on your detective hat, buy an iodine starch test (it will set you back around $5) to see if the product you’re consuming is simply a vehicle for grain fillers.
And of course, if you want to be safe, buy our mushroom products. Always grain-free and chock full of fruiting body goodness.