They’re popping up in coffee alternatives, bottled beverages, and supplements. When and why did mushrooms become so popular?
I worked at a food co-op for over four years. This beloved local grocer was mostly organic and established decades before Whole Foods was a twinkle in Amazon’s eye. At times, true to old-hippie tropes, it did smell like patchouli and roasting coffee.
During my time there, I watched plenty of miracle foods come and go. Every other week, some new seed, spice, powder, or superfood was the hot new item, each with sky-high health claims. A firm believer in the “eat more plants” Gospel, I didn’t typically buy into these trends.
But I remember the day a new bottled drink caught my eye in the deli cooler. The company Rebbl had created a chocolate drink made with reishi mushrooms (which I’ve since learned is also called the “mushroom of immortality”).
Out of curiosity, I bought it, shook it, and drank it up.
The beverage was thick, delicious, and had no hint of a “fungus-y” flavor. Until then, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to pair any kind of mushroom with a chilled chocolate drink. Suddenly, I was a believer.
Not long ago, to most Americans, mushrooms were considered little more than a pizza topping or stroganoff addition. This got me thinking: Mushrooms have been a food group since… well, forever.
At what point did mushrooms become so popular? From grocery aisles to mental health treatment and beyond, what’s in store for fungus in the future?
The Mushroom Boom
The first major functional mushroom company, Four Sigmatic (which specializes in mushroom-coffee blends), was founded in 2012. You could consider this “the year the ‘shroom boom began.” Founded in Finland and inspired by the country’s traditional chaga tea and high consumption of coffee, Four Sigmatic sought to craft a cup o’ joe that would offer coffee drinkers more than a caffeine buzz.
By 2016, a handful of indie startups followed suit. Soon, dozens of powders and elixirs containing lion’s mane, chaga, turkey tail, cordyceps, and the aforementioned reishi, among others, were infiltrating health food stores.
Why those mushrooms, specifically?
They belong to a special group of fungi known as functional mushrooms.
Experts define “functional mushrooms” as those which provide health benefits greater than their nutritional offerings. For instance, reishi is thought to lower cholesterol, boost immunity, and increase stamina. Cordyceps may have anti-aging benefits. Research into lion’s mane mushrooms suggests that it protects against dementia, inflammation, and nerve damage. The list of potential benefits from functional mushrooms goes on and on, and we’re learning more about them every day.
In short: the mushrooms used in these products promise profound health benefits, and we’re here for it.
Mushrooms: The “Meat” of a Plant-based Diet
In a class all their own (Kingdom Fungi as opposed to Plantae), mushrooms are a staple in vegetarian and vegan diets. So it’s no coincidence that the popularity of mushrooms has risen right alongside the popularity of plant-based eating. A shift seems to be underway as we become more knowledgeable about how food affects our total state of well-being.
We’re becoming hungrier for foods that provide benefits beyond caloric density or even vitamins and minerals. Now we want to know: What’s this food going to do for my gut microbiome? What about my immune system? What about my brain?
Our view of health has become broader, and so has the demand for foods with farther-reaching benefits. As the interest in organic and healthy eating rises, functional mushrooms have finally begun enjoying their day in the sun.
Researchers are catching on, and so far, the results are promising.
Mushrooms for Mental Health
No article on the popularity of mushrooms would be complete without mentioning psilocybin mushrooms, known colloquially as “magic mushrooms.”
These perspective-shifting compounds are being increasingly studied for their capacity to treat mental illnesses, particularly depression, anxiety, PTSD, and C-PTSD.
Several studies have shown how they can ease end-of-life anxiety in people with serious illnesses: Under the guidance of a trained clinician, patients facing a terminal diagnosis have taken psilocybin, laid back, and undergone an expansive journey. Patients report a deepening of empathy for their loved ones and existential insights that were elusive before.
Psilocybin mushrooms are still being studied for this purpose, but a growing number of people report that they’ve helped. Time will tell how beneficial they’ll be as we collectively (and individually) face our psychological wounds.
Aside from their boost to physical and mental health, the mushroom rabbit hole goes even deeper. New and previously unimagined uses for them are cropping up day by day:
Mushroom leather reportedly offers an ethical, sustainable alternative to cow’s leather. Mycelium, the rooty network that connects mushrooms to one another, is also being used in eco-friendly packaging options (less plastic? Please and thank you). Because these materials are fully organic, they can be safely resorbed into the Earth.
This is an exciting era for the humble mushroom. We’re seeing more and more how they could help solve some of the major ills that face our world—from sub-optimal health to our planet’s ever-worsening trash problem.
Fungus, so simple yet so multi-faceted, looks like it could provide a variety of answers. The question, of course, is whether or not we will listen.
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