Chaga Elixir by Four Sigmatic | Image courtesy of Four Sigmatic

Meet the Mushroom Merchants

Medicinal mushrooms like reishi, chaga, and cordyceps are taking the U.S. market by storm. While these fungi have long been central components of Chinese medicine and eastern traditions, the growing interest in wellness and preventative care among U.S. consumers is opening up opportunities for entrepreneurs to introduce these ancient ingredients to a new generation of health enthusiasts.

A jar of reishi mushroom extract from Moon Juice promises that this “Nootropic Supershroom” (read: brain enhancing mushroom) is a “calming adaptogen known to help balance mood and support concentration.” A 1.3 oz jar retails for $48.

A 3-gram sachet of chaga elixir from Four Sigmatic is “packed with antioxidant properties that support your daily wellness, energy levels, and help to protect your immune functions.” In summation, it’s “like a forcefield in a cup.”  

Sun Potion sells a cobalt blue 3.5 oz jar of cordyceps under the banner that this “potent Yang Tonic” may support “oxygenation of the body, mental power, athletic endurance, sexual energy, muscle tone, and the immune system.” Put succinctly, it’s an “active adaptogen.”

So what, pray tell, is an adaptogen? According to tonic-plant and fungi purveyor Moodbeli, adaptogens are “organic plants and mushrooms that help the body adapt to physical, environmental and emotional stress.”

Aspirational Dust

Medicinal mushrooms are not new to the U.S. supplement market. Leading mushroom extract wholesaler Nammex has been producing medicinal mushroom extracts for upwards of 35 years. Recently, however, medicinal mushrooms—and adaptogens more broadly—have transformed into aspirational lifestyle products, propelled to new heights by celebrity wellness personalities like Amanda Chantal Bacon, founder of the LA-based Moon Juice.

Bacon’s 2015 interview with Elle magazine about her morning routine (spoiler: it includes the “super endocrine, brain, immunity, and libido-boosting powers of Brain Dust, cordyceps, reishi, maca, and Shilajit resin”) helped Bacon and medicinal mushrooms capture the imaginations of biohackers and juice-enthusiasts nationwide.

The shelves of aspirational beauty/wellness stores (e.g., the West Village staple Cap Beauty) are lined with Moon Juice’s “Dusts” and mushroom extracts alongside a panoply of sleekly branded mushroom products from companies like Sun Potion, NordicNordic, and Four Sigmatic—all founded in the past nine years.

A Growing Market

Trendy brands selling medicinal mushrooms and other adaptogens have proliferated in U.S. markets recently, fueling American interest in staples of traditional Chinese medicine and Eastern traditions. As reported by Food Navigator, year-over-year sales for food and beverage products using medicinal mushrooms are increasing across the board, with Maitake and Cordyceps leading the charge at 811% and 230% growth respectively. Similarly, web searches for the benefits of these fungi have steadily increased over the past decade.

While consumers are eagerly researching and experimenting with these organic compounds on their own terms, the Western scientific community is still making up its mind. Assertions about the benefits of medicinal mushrooms are often hedged with the word “may”, or else an asterisk reminding customers that these claims have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Science and Skeptics

There is automatic skepticism towards any non-FDA regulated medicinal product, sold on lifestyle websites like Goop alongside tarot cards and rose quartz bottles that infuse water with positive energy. But knee-jerk doubt must be tempered by the fact that mushrooms contain beta glucans, polysaccharides found in the cell walls of fungi (as well as yeast, algae, and some plants), which are generally recognized as medicinally-active compounds and are used to help regulate the immune system and to combat high cholesterol, diabetes, and cancer.

According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Maitake has shown anti-cancer effects in laboratory studies and is currently being studied for its potential to fight cancer in humans. Lab and animal studies have demonstrated that chaga mushrooms can inhibit cancer progression, activate certain types of immune cells, and potentially reduce inflammation. Similarly, lab tests suggest that reishi mushrooms could help to lower blood pressure and to support immune function. Cordyceps may help improve kidney function and may lower blood sugar levels. However, these results have yet to be demonstrated in controlled trials in humans.

The preliminary studies on many medicinal mushrooms are intriguing, but whether the sweeping claims papering mushroom extract jars in beauty shops would hold water in a randomized controlled trial with humans is an open question. Despite this, consumers and mushroom merchants aren’t waiting for the FDA’s stamp of approval. As the founder of Moodbeli, Krysia Zanjoc, told the New York Times, “A six-months-long FDA trial is great. But these have been proven remedies in human trials for five thousand years now.”

The Catch

However, without any regulation of these products, the authenticity and nutritional value of these mushroom supplements can be questionable. Whether a mushroom extract contains beta glucans and other active compounds depends on how the mushrooms were grown and how the extracts were produced. A 2017 report published in Nature demonstrated that only 5 of 19 samples of Reishi supplements from the United States contained beta glucans and other active compounds.

According to Jeff Chilton, the founder of Nammex, this is a widespread trend across the medicinal mushroom supplement industry. It is cheaper to manufacture ‘mushroom’ extracts from mycelium (read: vegetative precursor to mushrooms) grown on grain rather than from the fruiting bodies of mushrooms grown on wood. Grain-grown mycelium products typically include that grain as a filler in the final product and have significantly lower levels of beta glucans and other active compounds. Four Sigmatic explains that these mycelium products contain 50-80% grain with as much as 50% less beta glucan content than products which use extracts from mushrooms grown on wood.

In the absence of FDA regulation, it's up to companies to provide—and consumers to demand—comprehensive information about the sourcing and potency of mushroom extracts. Some companies, such as Nammex and Four Sigmatic, make a sincere effort to explain their sourcing and quality control process. However, many others offer only cursory, opaque adjectives like “organic” and “wildcrafted” in lieu of comprehensive, meaningful information.

In a culture increasingly preoccupied with wellness and reconnecting with the notion of food as medicine, the burgeoning medicinal mushroom market presents a massive opportunity at the nexus of entrepreneurship and health. The challenge is to bottle the ethereal, aspirational qualities of wellness culture while still maintaining a commitment to transparency around quality and sustainability.