Lapping up fungi in a shake

Mushrooms are turning up in food and drinks such as chocolate and coffee.
Mushrooms are turning up in food and drinks such as chocolate and coffee.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON • People want to sleep better and feel less stressed out, to have more energy and fewer illnesses and to be able to think more clearly too. If only there were a magical potion they could drink to obtain all of these qualities.

Makers of what have been deemed "functional mushrooms" think they have that elixir.

The ancient practice of consuming mushrooms for their medicinal properties - a part of holistic medicine - has been popping up in more and more health cafes and packaged goods.

They fit into the emerging category of "adaptogenic foods" - foods with natural compounds that promote or restore normal physiological functioning - and trend watchers predict that 2018 is the year they will go mainstream.

Mushrooms have been used medicinally for centuries. Greek physician Hippocrates classified the amadou mushroom as having anti-inflammatory properties; and Otzi, the Ice Man, carried a pouch of mushrooms with him, according to the journal Integrative Medicine.

These days, you can go to a wellness cafe in Los Angeles, such as Lifehouse Tonics, and order a 'shroom shake or a lemon juice tea with mushrooms in it.

Mushroom teas have a high-profile booster in Gwyneth Paltrow, the actress and peddler of domestic potions for the elite on her lifestyle website, Goop.

One company promoted on her site, Moon Juice, sells powdered mushrooms that the company claims each enhances a different aspect of a person: his or her beauty, brains, sex life, mood and energy.

Four Sigmatic is another one of the brands leading the charge.

The company's founder, Mr Tero Isokauppila - a 13th-generation mushroom forager - has written a book called Healing Mushrooms and outlines the properties behind each.

These mushrooms go beyond your basic button and portobello.

There is reishi, a mushroom he says will keep your skin healthy, give you a better night's rest, reduce stress and cure seasonal allergies.

There is chaga, which he says is rich in antioxidants, can fight off the common cold, lower inflammation and make hair shiny.

There is cordyceps, which he says increases your energy and enhances performance "both athletically and in the bedroom".

And there is lion's mane, which he claims can reverse dementia and boost concentration and memory.

If it all sounds too good to be true, there are some doctors and nutritionists who agree.

"Like most trends, there's a lot of big claims being made," said Ms Mascha Davis, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

"There is some research showing some beneficial utilities in some mushrooms, but I think some of these companies that want to sell them overstate the benefits."

For example, reishi mushrooms have been found to have "antioxidant, anti-tumour, immune-modulating, cardiovascular, antiviral and antibacterial effects", according to studies cited in Today's Dietitian.

But Ms Davis cautions that there has not been enough research yet, and that some of the studies people use to back up mushroom-related claims were performed only with rodents, not people.

Other positive attributes cited in some studies - such as certain mushrooms' ability to thin blood - can be harmful if the mushroom is combined with certain medications, she said.

Some mushroom products are not making any health claims, but are aiming the fungi squarely at customers who want a meat substitute. Panco Foods' Pan's Mushroom Jerky, for instance, is nicely chewy and slightly sweet. The mushroom flavour is prominent.

If you want to get really serious about medicinal mushrooms, though, Ms Davis recommends consulting a doctor.

"The first thing I would tell people, if they're really curious about mushrooms, is that they should try culinary mushrooms, like portobellos and shiitake" - good sources of antioxidants - "which you can incorporate into your diet without having to get these really expensive powders", she said.

And also, if they want to try mushroom powder, "I think it would be prudent to be cautious", she said.

But at the same time, "I think it's a really exciting area. There are signs that point to some really interesting benefits".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2018, with the headline 'Lapping up fungi in a shake'. Print Edition | Subscribe