While there is no hard data supporting this pretty broad claim, a 2017 peer-reviewed study conducted by researchers at the University of Macau in partnership with US Pharmacopeia (USP) suggests Isokauppila may not be being overly dramatic.
This found that 74% of products of reishi supplements purchased in the US were not in accordance with their labels, with most lacking the characteristic triterpenoids and exhibiting a starch-like polysaccharide profile inconsistent with reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum).
“There are some retailers that don’t really care as long as consumers keep buying these products and they have good margins, but most people mean well, they're just not educated about mushrooms,” argued Isokauppila, a Finnish fungi enthusiast (and author of best-selling books ‘Healing Mushrooms’ and ‘Santa Sold Shrooms’) who founded Four Sigmatic in Finland in 2012 and is now based in Austin, Texas.
“The answer is mostly around education, both for consumers and buyers," he told FoodNavigator-USA.
Sourcing mushroom ingredients: Trust, but verify…
At Four Sigmatic, which manufactures its fungi-fueled products (coffees, protein powders, shots, hot chocolate, and elixir mixes) in the US at a series of co-packers, sourcing is a case of 'trust but verify,' said Isokauppila.
“So we do third party lab testing for every batch. My preference is to work with the same people - one of our main suppliers, we’ve worked with since we’ve been in business - but at the same time, you have to make sure that you have a constant supply of high quality ingredients, and we source from 27 countries.
“I have a lot of historical knowledge about mushrooms, thanks to my upbringing, but you have to make sure first of all that the product is actually what it says it is [eg. chaga or reishi etc], then that it’s in the correct dosage [there’s a meaningful amount of said mushroom] and it’s in the correct form [to unlock some of the benefits, you need to break down the chitin cell through an extraction process or by boiling].
“Then you need to look at purity – test for heavy metals, pesticides, even mycotoxins, and then you want to make sure it's sustainable. So there are at least five high level things you need to confirm, and unfortunately, America is pretty mushroom illiterate, which means that a lot of brands, maybe not consciously, are selling product that is not actually the product that they’re telling the consumer it is.”
Fairy dust…. ‘Most products don't have an effective dose, across the board’
When it comes to dosages, meanwhile, consumers should look out for ‘fairy dust’ levels of functional ingredients, whether you’re talking about medicinal mushrooms, or any other bioactive, said Isokauppila.
“I have a new book coming out next year that particularly addresses dosing. If you look at the clinical research, obviously depending on the ingredient, it's usually multiple hundreds of milligrams per dose even after extraction, let alone in non-extract form, so if you see some products on store shelves like a green powder that says it has 75 adaptogens and a bunch of superfoods, and it's a 10 gram dose, it's a joke.
“If there's any product that involves even 10 mushrooms all in one product, the likelihood that it's going to be effective is pretty low. Even having more than four or five, either the product has a meaningful amount and it will taste really bitter, or it's not going to be effective. Most products don't have an effective dose, across the board.”
He adds: “Even our lowest dose products - compared to other brands - are high dose products [Four Sigmatic's Mushroom Cacao Mix has 500mg of cordyceps, while its ground coffee with chaga has 250mg of chaga and 250mg of lion's mane, for example]. I have a background in sourcing and researching mushrooms and adaptogens, but we also have a clinical herbalist who also teaches mycology.”
Formulating with mushroom extracts: ‘If you buy a reishi powder and it's not incredibly bitter, then it’s probably not reishi at all’
So what are mushroom extracts like to work with?
“There are differences between varieties but commonly, they're very bitter and umami," said Isokauppila.
"They taste great with coffee, because coffee is bitter, and great with chocolate. They are also great with protein but that's because the other ingredients help mask the bitterness. But again, if you buy a reishi powder and it's not incredibly bitter, then it’s probably not reishi at all, it's probably oats or rice – myceliated grain [mushroom mycelium grown on a grain substrate]."
He added: “One of the main challenges if you have authentic products is how do you make them taste good and convenient for consumers, and that's a big hurdle. So if [a medicinal mushroom powder] tastes really good, and it says it’s just mushrooms, it probably not mushroom…”
‘Mushrooms like heat’
As for heat and other factors that can often negatively impact bioactive ingredients, mushrooms are unusual in this respect, which means adding medicinal mushrooms to hot drinks works well, said Isokauppila.
“Weirdly, unlike some botanicals, mushrooms actually like heat, so the most common use case to unlock bioavailability of mushrooms is heat and lipids. So if a chef cooks them in butter in high heat for a long time, or puts them in soups and broths, the mushrooms actually do well.
“And then, from a clumping and solubility point of view, mixability can be an issue if you have a high quality mushroom powder, but for our new creamers [which combine mushroom extracts and other functional ingredients with coconut milk powder and MCT oil] it took a long time to get the products right.”
‘The proteins are selling insanely well…’
So how is Four Sigmatic doing?
Incredibly well, said Isokauppila, who says around 80% of sales are online (primarily via Foursigmatic.com although the brand also does very well on Amazon, Thrive Market and other e-commerce platforms), while there will be a bigger push into bricks and mortar retail in the coming year (Four Sigmatic is currently in around 5,000 doors from Whole Foods to Target).
“We're fundamentally a functional food brand operating in two categories, plant protein, and coffee, so I’d say we’re part of the fourth wave of coffee, which is take the third wave of coffee but make it functional.
“We launched plant proteins at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and those have almost become bigger business to us than all the coffee business; the proteins are selling insanely well. The shots and the elixirs have their raving fans, but the bulk of our focus is on functional coffee and plant protein.”
‘Mushrooms are hotter than ever’
When Four Sigmatic first came to the US, recalled Isokauppila, “People had no clue what the lion's mane was, but ashwagandha [an adaptogen Four Sigmatic uses in several products] has more searches on Google than green juice, and mushrooms are hotter than ever.
“Some people are specifically searching for reishi or chaga but most people are looking for solutions [eg. immune health, mental focus etc].
“That being said, most people still discover brands like Four Sigmatic through personal referral.”
Shroomtastic… Chaga, lion's mane, reishi, cordyceps, turkey tail...
According to Isokauppila, who has written three books about mushrooms, “Mushrooms are among the most researched ingredients in the world partly because of the pharmaceutical industry. It's estimated that about 40% of all pharmaceuticals use fungal material and there are multiple billion-dollar blockbuster drugs from various immunosuppressants to penicillin that involve mushrooms.
“There are multiple universities in the US that are very advanced in mushroom research, particularly the University of Pennsylvania, but more research is needed. But there are quite a lot of studies on the health benefits of beta 1,3/1,6 glucans [polysaccharides found in medicinal mushrooms that have been linked to a range of benefits from immune health to cardiovascular health, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and prebiotic effects, and blood glucose control].”
Image credit: Reishi mushrooms, GettyImages-9770880_224