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The Brilliance of Mushrooms: From Meat to Material to Medicine


Mushrooms have long captivated our attention—and for good reason. The benefits of mushrooms run the gamut, which now include the ability to become vegan leather, bacon and a tool for better mental health.

If you need convincing that mushrooms are indeed having a moment, look no further than Timothée Chalamet’s recent bespoke Stella McCartney mushroom suit, or Katy Perry’s return to Saturday Night Live last weekend in a mushroom-centric stage outfitted with a set and dancers dressed as amanita muscaria, those red-and-white mushrooms featured in Alice in Wonderland and countless other stories and fairy tales.

Mushrooms are so much more than their magical storybook history though. They’ve been prized and valued by cultures around the world since pre-history—and modernity is giving them new life in a host of novel applications including a vegan leather alternative, plant-based meat, and viable drug alternatives for treating depression, anxiety, and PTSD, among other uses.

Image courtesy Ylanite Koppens on Pexels

They’re also key in the fight against climate change. Mycelium, the underground fungal networks, sequester a great deal of carbon—as much as 70 percent.

Fantastic Fungi, an award-winning documentary that debuted on Netflix last year, dived deep into the weird world of fungi. It featured world-renowned mycologist Paul Stamets, who’s also the founder of Fungi Perfecti, a line of functional mushrooms.

“The entry point is sort of around this idea of mushrooms, but it’s really not about mushrooms. It’s really about nature’s intelligence,” the film’s director Louie Schwartzberg said last year.

“There’s so much that we want to talk about but we couldn’t squeeze into an 82-minute movie, so this allows people to dig deeper.”

What are mushrooms?

Although a staple in many plant-based diets, mushrooms are not plants. They’re fungi a kingdom of more than 144,000 species. These eukaryotic organisms include mold, yeast, and mildew, as well as complex underground mycelium structures, as well as mushrooms—the fruiting bodies of mycelium that include culinary and medicinal varieties.

“Fungi were the first organisms that came to land, munching rocks, and fungi gave birth to animals about 650 million years ago,” Stamets, recently told Scientific American. “We’re descendants of the descendants of these fungal networks.”

According to the late ethnobotanist, Terrence McKenna, mushroom spores traveled through space and became the catalyst to our human evolution. McKenna, along with his brother Dennis, was an outspoken advocate for psychedelic mushrooms. He believed our advanced brains and language were the result of fungi, particularly the 200-plus species of psychedelic mushrooms and truffles.

Image courtesy Tom Swinnen on Unsplash

McKenna credited our complex imaginations that created art, religion, and philosophy to early and prolonged exposure to mushrooms—he labeled it the “stoned ape” theory.

Evidence of the use of psychedelic mushrooms dates back thousands of years along with other psychoactive plants consumed across the globe. Mushroom use is particularly well documented in Mesoamerica, documented in “mushroom stones” that date back to 500 B.C.

That amanita muscaria mushroom Perry highlighted on SNL is believed to be the origin story of Santa Claus.

At least 70 varieties of mushrooms are bioluminescent—meaning they glow in the dark. This chemical reaction allows the mushrooms to attract insects that help to spread the mushroom spores—a phenomenon called foxfire.

Types of mushrooms

Thousands of varieties of mushrooms exist with a range of benefits. These are a few of the key varieties.

Culinary mushrooms

Image courtesy Pixabay

These are the mushrooms used in food. The list is vast but common ones likely to find in supermarkets or restaurants include:

  • button mushrooms
  • crimini
  • shiitake
  • portobello
  • lobster
  • oyster
  • maitake
  • wood ear
  • porcini
  • enoki
  • chanterelle
  • shimeji
  • morels

Medicinal mushrooms

Image courtesy Flickr

Popular in Eastern medicine, medicinal mushrooms work to support the body in a number of ways. While some of these are consumed as teas or powders, they’re rarely cooked and eaten like culinary mushrooms. Medicinal mushrooms include:

  • reishi
  • turkey tail
  • chaga
  • cordyceps
  • lion’s mane
  • tremella

Psychedelic mushrooms

Image courtesy Pixabay

More than 200 known types of psychedelic mushrooms and truffles exist. The most common include:

  • psilocybe cubensis
  • psilocybe semilanceata
  • psilocybe baeocystis
  • psilocybe Mexicana
  • psilocybe azurescens
  • psilocybe cyanescens 
  • psilocybe pelliculos
  • psilocybe weilli
  • amanita muscaria
  • agrocybe
  • conocybe
  • coplandia
  • gymnopilus
  • hypholoma
  • inocybe
  • panaeolus
  • pluteus
  • psathyrella
  • stropharia

Health benefits of mushrooms

If there’s a multi-purpose medicine cupboard substance on the planet, it may just be the mighty mushroom. The benefits of mushrooms read like a checklist for optimal health.

Cancer prevention

Consuming mushrooms has been linked to a number of health benefits, notably some instances of preventing cancer. Research from scientists at the City of Hope linked it to slowing the growth of breast cancer and prostate cancer.

Immune function

Mushrooms are rich sources of antioxidants, including selenium, which may also help to boost immune function. Antioxidants prevent free radical damage. Mushrooms also contain ergothioneine, a naturally occurring antioxidant.

A study last year looked at the common culinary white button mushrooms, which were shown to enhance the activity of critical cells in the body’s immune system, according to the USDA.

Chinese medicine has long prized medicinal mushrooms like reishi for their ability to boost immune function. Reishi contain triterpenoids, polysaccharides, and peptidoglycans, that have been shown to support immune function, including white blood cell function.

Image courtesy Valeria Boltneva on Pexels

Vitamin D

Mushrooms are one of the only non-animal sources of vitamin D. “All mushrooms contain some vitamin D1, but mushrooms have the unique ability to increase vitamin D amounts due to UV-light or sunlight exposure,” says the Mushroom Council. “Similar to humans, mushrooms naturally produce vitamin D following exposure to sunlight or a sunlamp: mushrooms’ plant sterol – ergosterol – converts to vitamin D when exposed to light.”

Mental health

While a growing body of research into psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms shows strong potential to treat mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and PTSD, common mushrooms are showing benefits, too. Data published last year found that people who regularly ate mushrooms reduced their odds of having depression than those who didn’t consume mushrooms.

Fatigue relief

A recent study found reishi mushroom was effective in reducing fatigue in just four weeks of use. That benefit may be linked to reishi’s immune system support, fighting free radical damage. Reishi can also regulate testosterone levels in the body, which can impact energy levels.

Mushrooms as meat

Animal agriculture is unsustainable. Responsible for nearly 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, the race is on to displace beef, pork, chicken, and all the rest of it. While Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have dominated the market in recent years, mushrooms have recently become one of the hottest trends in vegan meat, too. Wicked Kitchen’s founders, brothers Chad and Derek Sarno, have brought mushrooms front and center as a vegan meat replacement. Mushrooms are being used in vegan steak, bacon, and jerky, too.

MyForest Foods, formerly The Atlast Food Co., says it makes realistic bacon without the use of isolated pea or soy protein, the go-to for most vegan meat brands including Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. It secured $40 million for expansion plans last year.

Image courtesy Wicked Healthy

“Replicating Mother Earth’s magic, we simulate the forest inside our vertical farms; cool rains, evening fog, morning mist, and afternoon breezes create just the right environment for our mycelium to grow, weaving into delicate, precise, and tender whole-cuts for the world to enjoy,” Eben Bayer, CEO of MyForest Foods said in a recent statement. “The forest, philosophically and physically, is where we hail from, so this felt like a natural move. ‘From the forest. For the future,’ our new company tagline, captures our essence and purpose.”

Derek Sarno says part of what makes mushrooms such a good substitute for meat is they can be used in their whole form. With the right seasoning and cooking method, you don’t need labs to make meaty mushrooms.

“I’m super fired up about [mushrooms] because there are so many things you can make out of them,” Sarno said recently. “For the past decade, all I’ve been doing is testing and working with mushrooms. You have fake meats and I fully support them, then you have the cellular agriculture, but the gap in the marketplace is the whole food market. Mushrooms are the star of the show.”

Mushrooms as leather

Just as mushrooms are displacing carbon-intensive traditional meat, they’re coming to the runways in a big disruption to leather.

Leather is traditionally made from cow skin, but it can come from other animals, too, including kangaroos, and dogs; exotic skins come from alligators, snakes, and lizards, among others. Leather poses ethical concerns, and it’s unsustainable; raising animals contributes to global warming, and leather tanning is one of the most toxic practices in the textiles industry.

Organizations including MycoWorks, Ecovative, and Bolt Threads are disrupting leather with mushrooms. While there are other vegan leather options, mushrooms appear to be the most promising in mimicking the texture and durability of conventional leather.

The category got a boost from French luxury house Hermès when it announced its first vegan leather bag would be made from MycoWorks’ mushroom leather.

Image courtesy Bolt Threads

“MycoWorks’ vision and values echo those of Hermès: a strong fascination with natural raw material and its transformation, a quest for excellence, with the aim of ensuring that objects are put to their best use and that their longevity is maximised,” Hermès artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas said in a statement last March.

Mycelium giant Ecovative recently announced a coalition with brands including Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein aimed at displacing leather to help the brands’ sustainability initiatives.

“By marrying innovation with legacy, we can focus on what we do better than anyone else in the world—growing the best mycelium at commercial scale,” Gavin McIntyre, Ecovative Co-Founder and Chief Business Officer, said in a statement. “Working directly with fashion brands and tanneries, we make beautiful, high-performing, and sustainable materials without harming animals or the planet.”

Long-time sustainability champion, designer Stella McCartney partnered with Bolt Threads to launch her first mushroom leather handbag. The limited-edition Frayme handbag debuted last September at Paris Fashion Week.

It’s the future of fashion if you can get it right, and I think we can,” she said. “It’s the beginning of something new.”

Mushrooms vs. climate change

Stamets has long championed mushrooms as weapons against climate change and environmental threats such as oil spills.

Mushrooms eat other organisms—think of mold taking over bread or fruit left too long.

“[Oyster mushrooms] could clean up oil spills all over the planet,” he told Discover back in 2013. “[Agarikon] could provide a defense against weaponized smallpox.”

He says the largest reservoirs of biological carbon are fungi in the soil. “So you can offset climate change by sequestering carbon in mycelium.”

Image courtesy James Wheeler on Pexels

Mushrooms can help in other ways, too, like being converted into biobutanol, a potentially viable replacement for petroleum-based fuels. Companies including Ecovative are using them to replace conventional packaging materials with a lower footprint than even recyclable materials. Mycelium has been used as building construction materials.

Stamets says the possibilities are endless.

“They have cellular intelligence,” Stamets says. “When you walk through the forest, they leap up in search of debris to feed on. They know you’re there,” he says. 

“They’re healing organisms,” Stamets said last year. “They help heal nature when it is suffering from affliction due to natural or human-made causes. Mushrooms are the bridge that bring all of us together as humans, as Earth citizens, as a species related to other species on this planet.”


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