Medicinal mushrooms saw skyrocketing growth in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Is this the first step in their mainstream journey?
COVID-19 has taught us so much already, such as: 1) handwashing really does work, 2) masks save lives, and 3) it doesn’t hurt to keep more toilet paper on hand than you think you’ll actually need.
But one of the lessons that’s stuck most with the health-and-wellness community isn’t just the fact that health is inextricably related to nutrition, but that the way we “do” healthcare in the United States quite simply doesn’t work.
That’s certainly the lesson that Paul Schulick, founder and CEO, For The Biome (Dummerston, VT), takes from all this. “People are looking for immune support and preventative measures beyond social distancing and future vaccines,” he points out, “but our conventional healthcare system is only offering band-aid solutions, for the most part.”
No wonder, then, that the public’s growing skeptical of it. And no wonder that they’re also adopting what Schulick considers “the natural response”—namely, “looking to ‘alternative’ wellness practices.”
Topping that list of alternatives are functional mushrooms, which were attracting attention even before COVID gave a new shine to their relevance. And while mushrooms haven’t fully hit the mainstream yet, Schulick believes, “The more people react to our antiquated and ineffective healthcare system, the more the health benefits of mushrooms will resonate.”
Mushrooms began resonating with health-minded consumers several years ago, according to Jacob Knepper, data product manager, SPINS LLC (Chicago), “when they jumped to prominence as a key part of the adaptogenic movement centered on physical and mental stress management.”
Once shoppers wrapped their heads around the functional fungi’s basics, he continues, they started catching on to mushrooms’ “more holistic benefits,” including blood-sugar and immunity support. By the time the pandemic hit, “mushrooms were already on a steep upward trajectory in both food and beverage applications, and in vitamins and supplements.”
Concerns surrounding COVID-19 have since steepened that trajectory, and mushrooms are now “being catapulted into the spotlight and are likely seeing accelerated growth patterns and product innovation compared to what we may have otherwise seen,” Knepper concludes.
To quantify those observations, he cites SPINS data showing that for the 52 weeks ending October 4, 2020, growth in functional mushroom ingredients was up 49.9% across the board.
“The data suggest that more shoppers are turning to mushrooms in the form of supplements, as these products have grown 63.5% to $30,857,134 over the same time period,” Knepper notes. And zeroing in on the all-important early-COVID stockpiling days, he says the numbers there reflect “a huge spike for these products” during March 2020, when sales reached $5,940,387 over the four weeks to March 22—a 152% increase compared to the same period the previous year.
In retrospect, any observer of the pandemic’s cultural effects could have seen those sales coming, given how handily mushrooms’ functions fit our anxious moment.
After all, as Susan E. Hirsch, formulation manager, Gaia Herbs (Brevard, NC), points out, “People are concerned about their health, the health of their family and friends, and adaptations to new ways of living and working—in some cases managing homeschooling on top of everything else. People have also reported trouble staying focused with all the new distractions they’re dealing with. This new reality has dramatically increased levels of ongoing stress and anxiousness, and these conditions can easily lead to other issues, including sleep and digestive challenges.”
Shoring Up Defenses
And immunity challenges. “People are becoming more aware of chronic stress’s impact on the immune system,” notes Schulick. “It’s like turbulence for your immune response and accelerates its deficiency and deterioration. You’re much more vulnerable to infection when chronic stress goes unchecked.”
Which is where mushrooms come in. Not only are they safe to take on a daily basis, Schulick says; they’re packed with protective terpenoids and beta-glucans that “‘train’ and rehabilitate the immune system, modulating pro- and anti-inflammatory cytokines to help support what we call ‘a wiser immune system’ that responds more precisely while helping the body adapt to stress,” he explains.
Pathways to Wellness
Scientists are fast at work figuring out why. “Virtually every day,” Schulick says, “more research is being published on mushrooms, focusing on their ability to help alleviate human suffering.”
Brien Quirk, director of R&D, Draco Natural Products (San Jose, CA), notes that a number of current studies examine mushrooms’ antiviral properties against influenza, which he says “is even more of a concern while we’re dealing with COVID.” To understand how mushrooms effect their antiviral benefits, it helps to understand the pathways whereby flu viruses make us sick in the first place.
One such pathway involves the glycoprotein hemagglutinin (H), a large sugar-binding lectin that sits outside viral particles and helps bind them to new host cells. Another involves the enzyme neuraminidase (N), which eases viral particles’ transit through the respiratory tract mucus membrane and helps release “flu-virus offspring” from infected cells “so that they can disseminate to infect other cells,” as Quirk explains. (When we see seasonal flus named with HN numbers, like H1N1, those numbers reference the particular strain of hemagglutinin and neuraminidase involved.)
So where do mushrooms come in? Aside from their general immune-boosting properties, they help block these two pathways. In fact, Quirk says, “Many immune-support medicinal mushrooms have been found to inhibit the neuraminidase pathway, which is the same mechanism Tamiflu uses.”
For example, reishi, maitake, shiitake, cordyceps, and Phellinus baumii all display this capacity, with a recent study on reishi (genus Ganoderma) finding inhibitory effects for two of its triterpenoids—ganoderic acid T-Q and TR—against neuraminidases in the H5N1 and H1N1 virus strains.1
Another study involving influenza virus type A (serotype H1N1) found that oyster mushroom, enokitake, and turkey tail all provided effective inhibition against the pathway, as well.2 “Turkey tail was even noted to have a high therapeutic index and was suggested as a promising new antiviral agent against some flu strains,” Quirk adds.
And while conceding that none of these fungi will likely prevent the flu or its more serious complications, Quirk believes that “they may be able to help the body improve its defense based on a combination of their immune support and other bioactive effects.”
Requests Are Up
Whether consumers are familiar with the research or not, their demand for mushrooms is strong enough for Quirk and others to notice. For example, reishi “is almost always the top request,” he says, with lion’s mane—which, like reishi, has purported cognitive, mood, and immune benefits—coming in a close second. “Others we frequently see requested are chaga, Poria cocos, turkey tail, and shiitake.”
Jonathan Fitzpatrick, product manager at Gaia Herbs, notes that lion’s mane was scoring a search-popularity ranking close to 100 in Google Trends this past autumn, “which means that the term is receiving the highest active search interest level possible.”
And Schulick says that his company has its eye on chaga. “It’s been used for centuries in TCM”—Traditional Chinese Medicine—he notes, “and is known as the ‘king of medicinal mushrooms’ for good reason.”
Case in point: Recent research apparently shows that chaga can inhibit RNA and DNA viruses in vitro. “The antiviral and anti-inflammatory benefits are quite remarkable,” Schulick says. “In fact, a research paper released this past August focused on the virome-modulating and anti-inflammatory effects of mushrooms and herbs on SARS-CoV-2 infection and stated that ‘one of the potential candidates against the SARS-CoV-2 virus may be Inonotus obliquus, also known as chaga mushroom.’3 The study went on to highlight chaga’s ‘powerful enzymatic system and strong system of defense,’ which has been shown to inhibit pro-inflammatory cytokines associated with COVID-19 and help prevent a ‘cytokine storm’ from overwhelming the immune system.”
Worth noting, Schulick adds, is that these benefits manifest most strongly in high-grade, quality chaga grown specifically on birch trees. “This is because chaga extracts betulinic acid from the birch tree, a key immune-modulating compound and signaling molecule that helps support the resilience of the immune system,” he says. And not surprisingly, this is the chaga his company includes in two of its new immune products.
Similarly, Fitzpatrick notes that another trend in the mushroom space is a preference for extracts from the fruiting-body—the above-ground portion of the fungi that we can see—over those from the underground mycelia network grown on grain. Here, too, Gaia Herbs uses only fruiting-body extracts, as these “contain the most active beneficial constituents”—in particular, the beta-glucans that research associates with immune health and overall wellness, Fitzpatrick says.
Mushrooms to Market
Sevanti Mehta, president, Unibar Corp. (Houston), is also excited about mushroom beta-glucans and notes that the company’s Maitake Pt78 mushroom ingredient “delivers a unique and powerful source of immune support by providing the body with essential beta-glucans,” he says. “At a time when everyone has immune health on the mind and when interest in medicinal mushrooms has grown, it was clear that we needed to launch this clinically studied maitake extract to provide an option that can deliver optimal support to the immune system and promote enhanced cellular function.”
Consumers are finding ingredients like Maitake Pt78 and others in products across the board: foods, supplements, beverage mixes—even cosmetics.
To help formulate the latter, Quirk notes that Draco supplies the BioReishi brand of reishi extract, which is standardized to beta-glucans and has moisturizing, anti-inflammatory, and purported skin-healing benefits.
Adds Schulick of For The Biome, “Four of our seven skincare products contain mushrooms as a key ingredient. And as I mentioned, chaga will be featured in two of our upcoming immune formulas set to launch this December,” the month this article was written.
Gaia’s Hirsch is bullish on the potential of mushroom-herb blends, which she credits for helping to “push mushrooms into the spotlight.” Within Gaia’s line of such blends, “my personal go-to and one of my favorite products is our Immune Shine Mushroom & Herbs powder,” she says, which combines adaptogenic mushrooms like maitake and chaga with elderberry, ginger, and astragalus. “I use it in my daily morning routine, as it helps me stay healthy and supports my immune health.”
At SPINS, Knepper’s seen “major increases” for mushrooms in the food supplements category, where mushroom wellness shots and powders generated growth of more than 400% relative to the previous year for the 52 weeks ending October 4, 2020.
Outside of supplements, functional mushrooms gained traction in food and beverages, with the emphasis on beverages and especially beverage mixes. “This segment has grown to about $12 million, with a very healthy growth rate of 22%,” Knepper notes. “Shelf-stable coffee beans, grounds, and instant mixes are definitely a hot category within the segment, too, where functional mushrooms products are up 43% compared to the previous 52 weeks.”
Even snack and indulgent categories are seeing mushroom action—ice cream, chips, jerky. “Thanks to a favorable taste and texture profile to go along with their holistic wellness benefits,” Knepper says, “functional mushrooms should continue to see an increased presence across a number of food categories as a highlighted functional ingredient.”
Mushrooms in the Mainstream
And experts agree, a presence in the food space is the ticket that any mushroom needs to officially go mainstream.
As Quirk says, “When we start seeing more instant-food-based medicinal mushrooms in grocery stores—much as we now see products with goji berries, stevia, and monkfruit—we’ll know that it’s gone full mainstream.”
Fitzpatrick looks forward to mushrooms’ colonization of platforms ranging from gummies and chewables to effervescents, syrups, herbal shots, and even infused lollipops. “It’ll be exciting to see all the ways that mushrooms will be introduced in new and approachable formats,” he says.
But Schulick is holding off on declaring mainstream certification just yet. “From my perspective, mushrooms aren’t even close to being fairly mainstream,” he says. “Their popularity in America is nothing like in Asia or even some European countries when it comes to appreciation and understanding of what they have to offer. I look at the future of mushrooms using the practice of acupuncture as an analogy: If we touch the right points with just the right people, their popularity could go viral overnight. Pun intended.”
And now could be the right time for that to happen. “If we don’t make major modifications to our lifestyles, the viral upheaval that SARS-CoV-2 caused will be just the tip of the iceberg,” Schulick predicts. “To overcome what’s ahead, people will need to remain proactive regarding holistic wellness. In conclusion, all pointers suggest that mushrooms will continue to mushroom.”