Everything you need to know when buying mushroom supplements.
The supplement industry can get confusing and buying the right products is getting trickier than ever with the use of clever advertisement. Often times marketing terms will deliver a false sense of quality, leaving the consumer with a product that claims to be full of all the essential nutrients that they're seeking, yet in the end, it truly does not deliver. This is true when it comes to all sorts of herbal and non-herbal supplements and especially true in regards to mushrooms.
Let’s get to the roots.
It may come as a surprise that there are many supplements being marketed and sold as mushrooms on the shelves today that don’t actually contain any real mushrooms.
These products are almost always made from what’s called myceliated grain, or what mushroom growers call grain spawn. There are two types of supplements here, grain spawn, and extracts and it’s extremely important to be able to make the distinction between myceliated grain and true mushroom extracts when buying them for their therapeutic value.
To understand what myceliated grain let's start with mycelium. Mycelium is essentially the root system of a mushroom. It’s made up of thin, wispy white strings and makes up most of the biomass of fungus. Mycologist, Paul Stamets even coined the phrase, “earth’s natural internet” because of how mycelium forms connections and communicates with the root systems of 90 % of other plant species. With that said, one of its main functions is to actually transfer compounds like beta-d-glucans from soil to fungi and that creates what's called a fruiting body, what we typically refer to as the mushroom we see popping out of the ground. This mushroom or fruiting body is what holds all of the nutrition and active constituents within fungi which is why it possesses so much medicinal value.
How myceliated grain supplements are produced.
Instead of starting with spores, mushroom growers will use a chunk of mycelium and mix it in with any variety of sterilized grain like rye, oat, barley, brown rice, etc. After they’re mixed in together, the mycelium will start to work its way all throughout the medium and this is what's known as grain spawn. Some producers will stop there and sell that as a supplement without letting the mushroom come to fruit and this is common in the marketplace because it’s essentially a more cost-efficient, simpler process that requires less maintenance and materials.
Now, while this method of production is more cost efficient, it only leaves behind trace amounts of beta-d-glucans (the good stuff) and high amounts of polysaccharides. The residual grain from seed grain spawn increases polysaccharide content which is then advertised all over the product. Marketing high polysaccharide numbers give consumers a false sense of quality when in reality most of the product is mainly just starch or gluten found in the grain medium sold with a high price tag.
Polysaccharides may also be advertised as alpha-glucans. This is the same reason why you'll sometimes see a high polysaccharide content on the label for products made up of mushroom grown on grain. It's due to the alpha-glucan in the grain, not the beta-glucan from the mushroom. Most research conducted on the benefit of glucans is conducted using fungal beta-glucan rather than alpha-glucans.
Here are some common terms manufacturers/producers use to advertise a mushroom supplement that is mycelium grown on grain.
- Myceliated brown rice
- Mycelial biomass
- Organic White Milo
- Myceliated grain
- Cultured oats
Why you want the beta-glucans.
Scientifically, beta-glucans are polysaccharides of sugar molecules. They originate from yeast, fungi, mushrooms, oats, and bacteria. Unlike the polysaccharides alpha glucans, b-glucans act on immune receptors. It’s even been proven that some fungal b-glucans markedly stimulate our immune system to protect us from attack by pathogenic microbes and from harmful effects of environmental toxins and carcinogens. (5)
In a 2007 study published by the British Mycological Society, it was shown that fungal b-glucans can be beneficial to people with impaired immune systems, as well as those suffering from infectious diseases and cancer. It also proved effective in helping patient recovery from chemotherapy and radiotherapy by protecting radiation-induced DNA damage in human lymphocytes. Furthermore, it has been clearly stated by the Cancer Biology Program of the University of Queensland that careful choice of beta-glucan products is crucial if their benefits are to be optimized. (2)
Buy the better extract.
Supplements made with the whole fruiting body are sometimes referred to as “true mushroom extract” or “full spectrum extract”. Full spectrum is a term used in reference to using the all of the mushrooms and therefore acquiring all of its available compounds. Full-spectrum extracts are most commonly produced by hot water extraction techniques where the fruiting body or the mushroom is soaked in hot water that breaks down the chitin on the cell wall. Chitin is a primary component of cell walls in fungi where the active compounds are held but it’s tough for our bodies to break down the chitin naturally so using this type of extraction increases the bioavailability of the final product, meaning it will be easier for our bodies to digest and obtain the nutrients.
As far as extraction goes, there are a couple of different methods used to produce a mushroom supplement. One method that only uses hot water and one that uses both hot water and ethanol, known as dual extraction. This is usually used to extract non-water soluble compounds found present in some herbs and mushrooms. For example, Reishi and Chaga have triterpenes that are not water soluble but still important and should be included in supplements.
In a 2007 study conducted by the University of Padova, Department of Biology, 25 men had their gastric juices tested after consuming a form of lab grade chitin in order to see if they are able to process it. It was shown that only 20% of the patients were found to have good chitinase activity, and another 20% had none at all. The other 60% had poor chitinase activity. In the 20% of patients that had absolutely no chitinase activity, the cause is believed to “be a consequence of the virtual absence of chitinous food in the Western diet. (4)
To wrap this all up.
The therapeutic effects of mycelium grown on grain can be very unpredictable if not non-existent due to our inability to digest chitin properly. This proves the case of choosing a supplement that was produced with a method of hot water or dual extraction. It should be noted however, the terms “dual or hot water extract” may not actually provide any real assurance of quality unless the company can also provide a certificate of analysis from a third party lab. Lab tests are a great way to show what active constituents are present within the product that you're buying.
When buying supplements to take control of your health it's easy to be blind-sided by clever marketing techniques however supplements are not just black and white. Empower yourself with information and read between the lines to ensure you're buying a quality product for your health as well as supporting clean companies.
- Brown, Gordon D, and Siamon Gordon. “Immune Recognition of Fungal Beta-Glucans.” Cellular Microbiology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2005, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15760447.
- Chen, Jiezhong, and Robert Seviour. “Medicinal Importance of Fungal Beta-(1-->3), (1-->6)-Glucans.” Mycological Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2007, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17590323/.
- McCleary, et al. “Measurement of β-Glucan in Mushrooms and Mycelial Products.” Latest TOC RSS, AOAC International, www.ingentaconnect.com/content/aoac/jaoac/2016/00000099/00000002/art00007?token=004d10197e41225f4038382c2b415248703c5f5050576b34272c5f7b3d6d3f4e4b3429bcb4eff.
- Paoletti, Maurizio G, et al. “Human Gastric Juice Contains Chitinase That Can Degrade Chitin.” Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2007, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17587796.
- Pillai, Thulasi G, et al. “Fungal Beta Glucan Protects Radiation Induced DNA Damage in Human Lymphocytes.” Annals of Translational Medicine, AME Publishing Company, Feb. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202477/.