“When we first came to the US, there was really nobody doing what we were doing, so it was easier to convince consumers online than retail buyers," said 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.
"But now it has pivoted. The mushroom category has exploded, retail buyers… are looking for it and the consumer demand is bigger. Interest in lion’s mane has exploded over the last few years."
‘Now we're looking to expand to reach more mainstream America’
So how are consumers finding products from Four Sigmatic, which is best known for its mushroom-fueled coffee, but is also seeing strong traction in the protein category with plant protein products infused with mushrooms and other functional ingredients such as Ashwagandha and Eleuthero?
A few years back, said Isokauppila, consumers would typically search online for specific mushrooms and come across Four Sigmatic products, whereas today they are just as likely to be “searching for immune support, stress support, sleep support, maybe with additional terms like natural sleep support, natural immune support, natural cognitive support.
“And in those cases, more and more of the mushrooms and adaptogens are popping up,” said Isokauppila, who said he is now seeking to build a stronger presence in bricks and mortar retail as mushrooms go more mainstream.
“We’re quite well represented in the natural channel, and now we're looking to expand to reach more mainstream America to provide these health benefits to a larger audience.”
Sourcing mushroom ingredients: Trust, but verify…
When it comes to sourcing mushroom extracts, as with any functional ingredients, buyers should do their homework, he said, highlighting a 2017 peer-reviewed study conducted by researchers at the University of Macau with US Pharmacopeia (USP) which found that 74% 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.
“Our approach has always been trust suppliers, but always verify, and not just the documents they provide, but also third party lab tests that we do to know what we're getting,” said Isokauppila, who manufactures products for the US at a series of co-packers.
“It starts with efficacy… then purity… all of our products are certified organic, but we still test for pesticides, heavy metals, things like that. And then there are organoleptic tests.”
If a medicinal mushroom extract tastes “super mild,” for example, “it probably doesn't have those bitter health promoting benefits,” he observed.
Consumers, in turn, should look out for ‘fairy dust’ levels of medicinal mushrooms, or any other bioactive, he added.
“I think there's a lot of pixie dusting or fairy dusting, putting small amounts [of mushroom extracts in products that won’t confer the advertised benefits], and I think that's very conscious. But I think there are also brands that mean well, but they're mushroom illiterate…
"Even top herbalists are not trained on fungi, and they might know the plant world really well but not the fungi, and there are clear differences.”
Shroomtastic… Chaga, lion's mane, reishi, cordyceps, turkey tail...
SPINS data shows that mushroom extracts are now added to products in almost every category of the store, although the biggest three segments are supplements, functional beverages, and coffee.
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