At TĒONAN, we believe that education is empowering. As a consumer, we want you to know exactly what you’re getting when you order our product. We’ve written extensively on our blog about functional mushrooms as a whole, the mushrooms we specifically use in our beverage mixes, why they’re beneficial for us, and what gives them their therapeutic properties. And there’s still plenty more to learn!
Today, we are going to go into one of the most hotly debated topics in the world of functional mushrooms: products made with mushroom vs. mycelium. In this first part of our two-part series on mushroom vs. mycelium, we will give an overview of mushroom anatomy, the differences between products made from different parts of the fungus, as well as what we know and what we don’t know about the compounds in functional mushrooms.
We are so excited to have the opportunity to interview Jeff Chilton for part two of this series. Jeff is not only the founder of Nammex, the company that supplies the mushroom extracts for our beverage mixes, but he is also a fierce advocate for consumer rights. Jeff is passionate about raising awareness around the differences between products made with mushroom and mycelium and what this difference means for the consumer. But before we chat with Jeff, we need to get you up-to-speed on some of the most contentious debates in the realm of functional mushrooms.
Fungus Anatomy Lesson
The fruiting body is probably what you imagine when you hear the term “mushroom.” The fruiting body has three parts: the cap, the stem, and the gills. So when you go to pick up mushrooms at the store to add to your salad or put on the grill, those are the parts that you’re seeing. The mushroom distributes spores from its gills, which in turn, create new mushrooms.
Mycelium is like the root of the mushroom. This is the part of the mushroom that can be found underground or attached to its host, absorbing nutrients from the soil (or host). The mycelium uses these nutrients not only to feed the mushroom itself, but the entire ecosystem (Figure 1).
Figure 1. There are two main parts of a mushroom, the fruiting body (which is the part that we identify as the “mushroom”) and the mycelium (a hidden root-like structure). Image by The Haverford School’s Global Impact of Infectious Disease.
For our purposes, the main differences between fruiting bodies and mycelium are in the cultivation process and resulting product. These two parts of the mushroom are cultivated in different ways that result in distinct therapeutic compounds as well as different concentrations of those compounds.
Compounds in Functional Mushrooms
Functional mushrooms have several compounds that make them beneficial for us. Current research shows that the two most beneficial types of compounds in functional mushrooms are beta-glucans and triterpenoids.
Beta-glucans are the polysaccharides that form the structure of mushroom cell walls. Initial research regarding the therapeutic aspect of functional mushroom chemistry exclusively focused on beta-glucans. One of the earliest approved drugs developed from functional mushrooms was Lentinan, a pure beta-glucan that is derived from the Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) mushroom.
Not all beta-glucans are the same, and not all display the same level of therapeutic activity. In most health food stores, one can usually find a pure beta-glucan supplement that’s not derived from mushrooms, but rather from oats. These oat-derived beta-glucans can be very beneficial for lowering cholesterol, however they typically lack the potent immune-boosting properties associated with fungal beta-glucans.
For mycotherapeutic purposes we are most interested in beta-1,3-glucan. The numbers 1 and 3 refer to the architecture of the molecule, and it’s exactly this specific architecture which largely determines the therapeutic activity (Figure 2).
Figure 2. The chemical structure of fungal beta-glucans, or beta-(1.3)-glucan. Image by Global Aquaculture Alliance.
That’s why, for example, mushrooms like Reishi (Ganoderma lingzhi), Shiitake, and Maitake (Grifola frondosa) that contain beta-1,3-glucan possess immune-boosting properties, whereas other mushrooms, such as the common button mushroom, which possesses beta-glucans branching at different positions, do not.
Beta-1,3-glucans are not only beneficial for boosting the immune system, but they also help to regulate blood sugar levels, as well as promote gut health. Studies conducted with the Reishi mushroom have shown that they can help to regenerate the mucosa lining of the stomach, as well as combat the bacterium Heliobacter pylori, one of the leading causes of peptic ulcers and gastritis.
Terpenes are another compound in some functional mushrooms that make them beneficial. However, terpenes are by no means unique to mushrooms. In fact, terpenes are ubiquitous throughout the natural world, often giving different plants their unique scents, such as: mint (l-menthol), citrus (limonene), lavender (linalool), pepper (beta-caryophyllene) and so on.
Figure 3. Terpenes (colloquially known as terps) are, after cannabinoids, the most studied and revered medicinal component of Cannabis sativa. It’s largely terpenes, and not cannabinoids, that contribute towards the overall flavour/aroma profile of different cannabis strains. Image by Alchimia Web.
As was the case with beta-glucans, terpenes can further be classified based on their molecular structure. Most notably into the categories: monoterpenes, diterpenes, triterpenes, and sesquiterpenes.
Functional mushrooms are particularly rich in triterpenes. Because they are much smaller than beta-glucans they are able to access (and thus influence), physiological processes at a much smaller scale. Studies have shown their ability to stop viruses from entering a cellular nucleus, thereby preventing their reproduction. Because they can act on some of the smallest-scale processes in our bodies, they provide a unique set of benefits complimentary to fungal beta-glucans.
Fungal triterpenoids possess a wide range of benefits, again mostly related to the immune and inflammatory systems. Additionally, research has found that they possess potent antihistaminic- (allergy) and blood pressure-reducing effects. Finally, it’s interesting to note that other adaptogenic compounds derived from plants, such as ginsenosides (Ginseng) and eleutherosides (Siberian ginseng), are also triterpenoids.
Products Made with Mushroom vs. Mycelium
The different cultivation processes for mushrooms and mycelium inform the chemical makeup of the final functional mushroom product.
When grown in nature, both mushrooms and mycelium will develop compounds that they need to protect themselves from natural threats like pathogens and bacteria. Since mushrooms cultivated for extracts are grown on natural substrates like wood or sawdust in a natural environment, they will still develop these compounds. Therefore, the products made from these mushrooms will have the full host of therapeutic compounds we expect to see in a functional mushroom product.
The mycelium cultivated for these products, on the other hand, is grown in a sterile environment on a grain (like rice, rice flour, oat, or sorghum grain), and then this grain is ground up. Since natural threats are not present in this sterile environment, the mycelium genes are not activated to their full potential and the protective compounds are not expressed. Therefore, not only does mycelium not develop these compounds that it would develop in nature, but the resulting product will also have large amounts of grain.
There is a way to use a liquid substrate instead of a grain in order to cultivate mycelium. While this does create a pure mycelium product without a grain, the problem is that this mycelium is still cultivated in a sterile environment, so the mycelium will not develop protective compounds. This particularly affects the presence of triterpenoids in the final product, which are produced in smaller quantities through this type of cultivation.
In fact, mycelium naturally has lower levels of beta-glucans and triterpenoids. Even if grown in the same environment as mushrooms, mycelium exhibits lower levels of these therapeutic compounds, the difference in cultivation techniques simply amplifies it. No matter how these different parts of the fungus were cultivated, whether it be grain substrate, liquid substrate, or woody substrate, a product made from mushrooms will have more of the therapeutic compounds that make functional mushrooms functional.
There is one theory in the realm of functional mushrooms that once the mycelium has grown on the grain, the grain becomes an “enzymatically-converted material” with its own unique therapeutic properties. While this is an interesting discovery in itself that deserves more research, further studies must also be done to find how the therapeutic properties in this compound compare to the therapeutic properties in mushrooms, which are well documented. More research needs to be conducted to find if the amount of therapeutic activity in grain/mycelium products is comparable to that of mushroom products of the same amount.
In order to understand the differences between products made with mushrooms and those made with mycelium, Jeff Chilton conducted an extensive study where he analyzed 95 different mushroom products for therapeutic compounds. In this study, Chilton found that while many of the products made using mushrooms were 30-40% beta-glucan, the mycelium products with grains were only on average 5-7% beta-glucan and 30-60% starch (Figure 4). Since mushrooms do not have large amounts of starch, the starch in these mushroom products primarily came from the grain substrate the mycelium grew on. This means that oftentimes, when taking a supplement that was created using mycelium grown on grain, the supplement has a large amount of grain, with very few of the therapeutic compounds that are in functional mushrooms.
Figure 4. As you can see, the products made from mushrooms/fruiting bodies had a far greater amount of beta-glucans, while the mycelium products had a far greater amount of starch. Since fungi naturally do not contain much starch, the starch in these products comes from the grain substrate. With such high levels of starch, these products are primarily grains with very little fungal therapeutic properties. Image from whitepaper Redefining Medicinal Mushrooms.
We would like to reiterate that this is all written considering our current knowledge of these therapeutic compounds. Mycelium do produce compounds that are different than those in the mushroom. It is indeed possible that the ideal supplement would contain both the amount of therapeutic compounds found in mushrooms and the particular compounds found in mycelium. More research still needs to be done on the therapeutic properties of the compounds unique to mycelium, the efficacy of supplements made from mycelium both with and without the grain substrate, and the benefits of supplements that have both the amount of beta-glucans present in mushrooms as well as the compounds unique to mycelium.
The issue of mushroom vs. mycelium products and the efficacy of each is currently hotly debated in the functional mushroom community. On the whole, there is nothing inherently wrong with products made with mycelium, except for the fact that these products are being marketed as “mushroom” products when they are not made with mushrooms, are primarily made of the starch the mycelium was grown on, and have far fewer therapeutic compounds than mushroom extracts.
This then becomes an issue of customer transparency. Functional mushroom products created with mycelium (or, more commonly, a combination of mycelium and grain) is often marketed as a “mushroom” product, sometimes having pictures of mushrooms on the packaging. The FDA has even confirmed back in 1976 that foods and supplements containing strictly mycelium “should not suggest or imply that [it] contains mushrooms.”
Our guest on the blog next week, Jeff Chilton, is the founder of mushroom extract company Nammex and author of the aforementioned whitepaper “Redefining Medicinal Mushrooms.” Jeff is leading the charge to educate everyone on what is in functional mushroom supplements and implores all creators of functional mushroom products to be transparent about what is actually in their products.
“That’s what these products are, no mushrooms involved. They’re just [starch with mycelium] that has been ground up to a powder and they're selling it as a mushroom supplement. It's not. And it’s really, in my opinion, unethical.” Jeff Chilton (YouTube Video: Muscle Intelligence (November 20, 2020))
Our current knowledge is that beta-glucans and triterpenoids are the primary therapeutic compounds in functional mushrooms. Because products made with mycelium are grown in sterile environments and are grown on a grain substrate, they have fewer of those therapeutic compounds than those made with mushrooms. While there is plenty more research to be done (particularly on the unique host of compounds mycelium has and how those compounds can complement those in mushrooms), the plethora of studies done on mushrooms and their therapeutic compounds prove their benefits to be unassailable.
Most importantly, products need to be labeled correctly for the consumer. Even the FDA has concluded that supplements and other products with mycelium should not be labeled as “mushroom products.” In order to make a well-informed decision about what they are buying, consumers need to be presented with factual information about functional mushroom products. We believe in consumer empowerment and company transparency.
We are looking forward to getting the opportunity to talk to Jeff Chilton, truly one of the leading experts in the realm of functional mushrooms, for next week’s post. Jeff is a pioneer leading the charge for transparency in the realm of functional mushrooms and we cannot wait to hear what he has to say and learn what knowledge he has to impart to us.