Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Fast-growing popularity of medicinal mushrooms spurs innovation

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/ souldivina
Source: Getty/ souldivina

Related tags Soup-To-Nuts Podcast

They may not be magic, but mushrooms – at least medicinal ones – are having a moment as consumer demand for functional benefits, such as clarity, calm, digestive support and enhanced immunity, are driving discovery and sales of the versatile, easy-to-you ingredients and products featuring them.

According to market research​ published this spring by Future Market Insights, the global functional mushroom market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 9.1% to reach $22.3bn by 2032 – a fast clip that is attracting investors, including the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, and driving innovation across food and beverage categories.

But for industry stakeholders to tap into the full potential, they need to overcome a few roadblocks, including consumer education, securing sufficient supplies and innovating products that are just as delicious as they are beneficial.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast​, we hear from the CEO of the functional beverage brand Rowdy Mermaid, the vice president of culinary innovations at Big Mountain Foods and the founder of the fresh pressed juice company Garden of Flavor about how they are innovating with apoptogenic mushrooms, the benefits they offer and the extent of the market potential. They also share consumer insights and expectations, strategies for overcoming roadblocks and where they see the star ingredients going in the next few years.

[Editor’s Note: Never miss another episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast – subscribe​ today.]

What is driving consumer interest in medicinal mushrooms?

While interest in medicinal mushrooms and adaptogens more broadly has been slowly building among the most health conscious US consumers for years, Rowdy Mermaid CEO Jamba Dunn says the pandemic has supercharged the trend as more people look for ways to boost their immunity, reduce their stress and better manage their health through diet.

“Adaptogens are super hot right now. Consumers are still a little bit unsure about a lot of different adaptogens,”​ but select communities, like CrossFit, are starting to talk about them and the knowledge is spreading, Dunn said.

“And,”​ he added, “I think during the last couple of years with the pandemic, mushrooms came to the forefront as a very important ally in the fight against COVID. And we’re now working with mushrooms as adaptogens to protect the body against incoming viruses for that purpose,”​ along with how they can help with ongoing fatigue, mental exhaustion and dealing with a world in constant crisis, Dunn said.

He added that it may take a few years for people who are not actively seeking diet-based solutions to these problems to learn about medicinal mushrooms, but overall he predicts the ingredients will take a similar trajectory as kombucha, which rose first among the most health-focused consumers.

Rowdy Mermaid’s Adoptonic Clarity leverages rishi mushrooms

Among the front-runners using medicinal mushrooms for these purposes is Rowdy Mermaid, which recently launched a line of Adaptonic Clarity sparkling tonic beverages made with medicinal mushrooms for clarity in four flavors and a previously launched decaffeinated Lion’s Root kombucha.

Dunn explains that the Adaptonic line uses Reishi mushrooms, which produce beta-glucans to protect themselves from predators and viruses. These beta glucans also can activate T cells in humans and animals to potentially protect against viruses. They also help reduce cortisol, he said.

In addition to the functional benefits, beta glucan molecules are ideal for beverages because they are water soluble unlike other beta glucans from grains or yeast, he added.

The Lion’s Mane powder used in Rowdy Mermaid’s kombucha offers similar benefits without impacting flavor and texture, making it easy to build a line of beverages around, Dunn said.

Are three mushrooms better than one?

The fresh juice company Garden of Flavor also is launching a newly reformulated Pear Reishi Energy Elixer, which founder Lisa Reed explains includes two additional super foods – Lion’s Mane and Chaga mushrooms, which she says support brain health, promote better sleep and help the body adapt to stress.

She explains that she chose Rishi because research shows it may lower bad cholesterol, while research shows Lion’s Mane can help moderate blood sugar and all three are believed to improve brain health, depression and anxiety and offer clarity.

Like Dunn, Reed says she is seeing consumer interest in medicinal mushrooms take off – fueled by consumers’ interest in taking ownership of their health as well as increased awareness from seeing tree mushrooms popping up at farmers’ markets or in grow-your-own kits that are popular experiential gifts.

Lion’s Mane offers whole food mock meat

Medicinal mushrooms have more to offer than just functional benefits, notes Big Mountain Foods’ VP of culinary innovation Murray Bancroft.  He explains that he is drawn to Lion’s Mane and other mushrooms for their unique culinary properties that allow him to tap into other hot trends, including consumer demand for plant-based meat alternatives with clean, whole-food ingredients.

“I find the texture to be a little bit like a chicken leg, or it can be a little bit like almost lobster or seafood in different applications,”​ he explained.

This texture shines in Big Mountain Foods’ recently launched Lion’s Mane Mushroom Crumble, which blends Lion’s Mane, Portobello and Shitake mushrooms for a gluten-free and soy-free crumble that Bancroft says is the perfect texture and has a litany of health benefits, including a hefty dose of protein and fiber and is low in fat.

In addition to texture, Bancroft said he also is attracted to mushrooms for their low environmental impact and ability to grow with little water.

According to the American Mushroom Institute, growing one pound of mushrooms takes about only two gallons of water compared to an average of 50 gallons of water per pound for other fresh produce items.

In addition, it notes, producing one pound of button mushrooms takes about the same amount of electricity as it takes to run a coffeemaker for one hour and generates just 0.7 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents.

Educating growers, buyers and consumers is a top challenge

For all the benefits of medicinal mushrooms, serious challenges could hold back stakeholders from tapping into the ingredients’ full market potential – including consumer education, buyers’ hesitation and sourcing sufficient, stable supply.

Garden of Flavor’s Reed explains that while awareness of medicinal mushrooms is deepening among some consumers, many still don’t understand the difference between them and common cooking mushrooms.

Before the pandemic she relied heavily on sampling as a way to educate consumers, but over the last two years she has had to rely on social media, and videos, which help but are not as effective.

Dunn says Rowdy Mermaid is taking a wholistic approach to educating consumers across multiple touchpoints and at different levels – from as basic as a mushroom design on the can and simple front of pack call outs about “rishi mushroom beta-glucans’ to a more detailed explanation on the website and an opportunity to reach out via email to learn more.

A bigger challenge for companies incorporating medicinal mushrooms into their products could be sourcing sufficient high-quality supplies because, as Bancroft explains, it isn’t just consumers who need to be educated, but suppliers and producers as well.

He explained that Lion’s Mane is “a bit of a challenge to grow compared to other mushrooms. It really needs a specific environment to do well. So … we work directly with a lot of growers”​ to help them improve cultivation.

“It’s certainly not easy, and we’re working with a number of different farmers and also even looking at growing some ourselves,”​ he said.

Dunn added that retail buyers also likely need to be educated about medicinal mushrooms and even if they know the market potential, they are closely tracking what is happening at the store level – bringing the challenge of education full circle.

Despite these challenges, all three innovators are confident in the potential of medicinal mushrooms to offer help and to take off like many other health foods that have come before them.

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