Attention micro-dosing and natural-remedy enthusiasts: psilocybin mushrooms aren’t the only ’shroom in the game. There’s a new(ish) wellness product in town: mushroom powder supplements. Yet the world of remedial fungi, like other holistic cures and supplements, can be a hazy one — legitimate assertions are mixed in with vague health claims and terms like “superfood,” “adaptogen,” and “nootropic.”
Are mushroom supplements just too magical to be true? Inverse dug into the science of mycology and microbiology to fact check some of the wild wellness claims these functional mushroom powders serve up. The answers we found are... complicated.
The companies selling functional mushroom powders will gladly take your money — but with no guarantees on actual results. According to one report, the functional mushroom market is expected to grow from $42 billion to $62 billion by 2023, and Google searches for “mushroom supplement” have steadily grown in recent years.
“You cannot really place value on the culture of a substance.”
“I don’t think [consumers] should expect it’s some magic,” Jianping Xu tells Inverse. Xu is a professor of microbiology in the department of biology at McMaster University in Ontario and the senior author of a review on the bioactive effects of edible and medicinal mushrooms.
Nicholas P. Money is a professor of biology and Western Program Director at Miami University in Ohio. He is also an author of books on fungi and other microorganisms. He is similarly skeptical, but he also acknowledges that some people do seem to find the supplements beneficial.
“I find it extraordinary that people are willing to, quite expensive[ly], pay for these untested products,” he tells Inverse. “I’ve certainly had plenty of people tell me that they were helped by these products. But there’s a difference between individual reports and properly tested medicines.”
Money wrote an article critical of the marketing of medicinal mushroom supplements for the journal Fungal Biology. He tells Inverse that he got hate mail after publishing the paper — the people who believe are passionate.
Many mushroom powders sold online make big promises to match these high passions: they claim to boost immunity, improve memory and concentration, and even help respiratory problems — but the truth is complicated.
What are functional mushroom supplements?
Mushroom supplements come in many forms: capsules, tea, even coffee, but the most common one appears to be powder. There are a few ways to make mushroom powder. Often, they are “hot water extracted,” which means dried, soaked in hot water or alcohol, and then sprayed onto a surface to dry into powder. They can be packaged alone or with other ingredients.
Supplements often contain various mushrooms for purportedly different uses:
- Reishi: This mushroom is not edible unless dried and powdered. It is native to Asia but also found in Europe and the southwestern U.S. Reishi looks like a shiny, dark red plate, and it tastes earthy and bitter.
- Lion’s mane: This mushroom is edible in its natural form. It is found in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. It looks, as the name suggests, like shaggy white fur and it tastes like crab meat.
- Turkey tail: This mushroom is technically edible as is but it is best powdered and dried. It is found all over the world and it looks like layered, thin oyster shells. In terms of color, it can come in various shades of brown or may appear darker on the inside with a light-brown edge. It tastes leathery, mild, and earthy.
- Chaga: This mushroom is not edible unless dried and powdered. It is found in Canada, Alaska, the northern U.S., and Europe. Chaga looks like the blackened, rough surface of a piece of wood. It tastes earthy and bitter, with notes of vanilla.
- Cordyceps: This mushroom is edible in raw, powdered, or extracted form. It is found in Nepal, China, Japan, Bhutan, Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand. Cordyceps looks like thin orange fingers, and it tastes nutty and mild.
The mushrooms we often use to cook with — like cremini or portobello — are generally considered separate from the “medicinal” or “functional” varieties, although there’s some overlap. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms, for example, are also used for medicinal reasons. If nothing else, the mushrooms we tend to eat also tend to taste better than functional mushrooms, for one.
That said, while mushroom powder can be swallowed in a capsule, it can also be mixed into any number of drinks or foods that taste excellent. You can spoon some into a blender with smoothie or protein shake ingredients, for example, or mix it into a latte. Some people even get creative by incorporating it into cooking. Cream of mushroom supplement soup, anyone? There are online recipes for “paleo bites” with mushrooms, mushroom powder broths, and even medicinal mushroom granola.
So why not just cook and eat functional mushrooms? Most of the mushroom varieties with alleged “medicinal” properties probably won’t be on your local supermarket shelves, and they generally taste bad in and of themselves. Remember, too, that “regular” mushrooms also provide a host of nutritional benefits, including the nutrients fiber, B-vitamins, and vitamin D (but only if they are grown under sunlight or U.V. light).
What is mushroom powder good for?
Companies that sell mushroom powders, coffees, and capsules boast various wellness benefits, but each mushroom seems to have slightly different attributes.
- Lion’s mane mushroom supplements generally advertise brain benefits — “focus,” “clarity”, and “memory.”
- Powders made with Chaga advertise that they’re good for immunity and digestion. Often they come with tag lines like “immune support,” and “sacred antioxidants.”
- Reishi is associated with longevity, and supplements containing this mushroom often carry descriptions like “life extension” and “vitality”
- Cordyceps is usually tied to fitness and performance, with terms like “energy,” “stamina” and “endurance.”
These claims have ancient precedence: Functional mushrooms have a long history of use in medicine and general well-being. There are records suggesting their use in Ancient Egypt, as well as in Chinese medicine, where they’ve been used in certain remedies for hundreds of years. Shiitake, reishi, and chaga mushrooms seem to have the greatest pedigree as far as history goes, with a record of being used to treat various diseases, gastrointestinal issues, and even asthma.
“There are bound to be some really interesting compounds in different species of mushrooms.”
Mushrooms contain compounds that have been shown to affect the immune response and other biological functions in mice and other lab-based models. The question is, to what extent do powders and teas confer these benefits in human bodies?
Based on the existing science, there’s a long way to go before the evidence matches up to the hype. But some scientific trials involving mushroom extracts do suggest they have a serious potential for use in future treatments of human health conditions.
What is the science of mushroom powder supplements?
There is some evidence that certain elements from mushrooms affect animals. For example, polysaccharides are a type of compound extracted from the mushroom Ganoderma lucidum (reishi). These compounds have been found to have antitumor effects in mice and in tumor cells in a lab setting. Fermented cordyceps have been shown to have an anti-diabetic effect in rats. Chaga also shows anti-allergic and cognition-enhancing effects in animal models, although this evidence is preliminary. Ingredients chemically extracted from lion’s mane mushrooms have also been shown to affect processes involved in the body’s immune response.
But lab animals are not humans, and cells in a petri dish aren’t, either. So what should the people taking these mushrooms make of the results?
As Money writes in an article that critiques the marketing of medicinal mushrooms:
“It is impossible, for example, to link the immunological consequences of injecting mice with cell wall polysaccharides to the expediency of drinking hot tea brewed from shiitake.”
But there are a few studies in humans that hint at the health benefits of compounds found in some mushrooms — enough to merit some mushroom compounds’ use in treatment for cancer. A compound found in shiitake, for example, is used in medicine to treat certain cancers in Japan, albeit in combination with chemotherapy. Polysaccharide K, produced by Trametes versicolor mushrooms, aka turkey tail, is also used as a treatment for gastric cancer after initial chemotherapy.
Human clinical trials — that is, randomized and controlled tests like the ones used to test pharmaceuticals or vaccines — would better determine whether different functional mushrooms, when ingested, have the health effects that adherents claim.
Genetic and environmental factors can affect things like immunity, neural function, physical performance, and so on, so it’s hard to attribute health affects to any one substance — mushroom or medication — without the proper testing, the microbiologist Xu says.
“If it makes you feel good, and you can afford it, go ahead.”
“It is very difficult to tease apart how each of those components contributes to those traits — to longevity, to sex drive, to how happy you are,” Xu says. “I don't think you can really expect that eating mushroom tea or taking mushroom supplements is going to increase them.”
Do mushroom supplements have side effects?
It’s important to keep in mind that supplements, as opposed to the drugs that doctors prescribe, live in a grey area of government oversight. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does have the authority to pull dangerous supplements from shelves, but there aren’t the same rigorous tests of safety and efficacy for supplements before they hit shelves as there are for other drugs.
In turn, supplements usually bear some version of this disclaimer: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” The subtext: Try supplements with this note at your own risk.
“To my mind, that’s like selling a bicycle, and saying, ‘We’re not suggesting that you actually ride this,’” Money says.
Xu is not so skeptical, and suggests instead you proceed with caution. If you do choose to take your chances with mushroom powders, then it is important to “know your source.”
“Know your source, a trusted source, and know the ingredients in there,” he says. It is worth remembering that certain mushrooms can cause serious health problems, so if you do want to try mushroom supplements, it is probably best to buy them from a company that adheres to certain safety standards and is well vetted rather than trying to harvest and make your own.
Encouragingly, neither of the experts we talked to could think of any major side effects, but Xu says the loose oversight may mean undesirable ingredients make it into mushroom supplements.
“Right now, most of the supplements, I believe, are from those few common species. And those species do not have known acute toxicity,” Xu says.
But “if you were to think of the gradual introduction of other mushroom species into this arena, then it could get complicated,” especially because toxic species aren’t always distinguishable from edible ones, he says.
Should you take mushroom supplements?
The general consensus from the experts: With appropriate caution, do whatever makes you happy. Xu likens the consumption of mushroom tea or powder to the kind of culture that develops around favorite foods and certain delicacies.
“You cannot really place value on the culture of a substance,” he says. “If it makes you feel good, and you can afford it, go ahead.”
When asked if people should take mushroom supplements, Money says, “they might do, but I think they might also just go ahead and eat grass clippings from their lawn. I mean, it’s just not tested.”
It is always wise to exercise caution when it comes to claims made on sleekly packaged containers — and perhaps more critically, if a mushroom supplement is being sold as a treatment for a serious medical issue. It is also good to consult your healthcare provider before taking supplements of any kind.
Although the scientific evidence of mushrooms’ supplements’ efficacy is preliminary at best, and hazy at worst, the effect of taking something you think will work can be powerful.
“It’s a placebo effect. So that’s why we need more study, really,” Xu says. Xu has written about the various medicinal compounds in certain mushrooms, many of them different from the ones we see in supplements.
While he criticizes the marketing tactics of supplement companies, Money stresses mushrooms’ potential for more focused medicinal use in the future — ultimately he wants to see more research investigating these functional mushrooms’ apparent potential and benefits for health.
“There are bound to be some really interesting compounds in different species of mushrooms that are going to have some real pharmacological efficacy, but we just really don't know what they are at this point,” he says.