- Mushrooms have been used medicinally for centuries, but this practice became more prominent globally in the 2010s
- As such, mushroom coffee has been heralded as a functional drink with plenty of health benefits
- But more research is needed to confirm that it’s better than consuming mushrooms and coffee separately
IN RECENT years, health and wellness have shaped consumer behaviour in no small way – largely driven by millennials and Generation Z. In response, a range of health-based products have entered the coffee market over the last decade.
One such product is mushroom coffee, which has rapidly become popular in major coffee-consuming markets.
Mushroom coffee is a drink made from blending medicinal mushrooms with coffee beans. The mushrooms have been processed to isolate their healthy compounds. The mixture is turned into a powder, which you can then mix with a liquid, such as milk.
Mushrooms have been used medicinally for centuries, especially in Asia. After World War II there was a shortage of coffee, and countries such as Finland began to use mushrooms instead. Yet it wasn’t until the 2010s that they gained mainstream popularity in the US and UK. Their entrance into the coffee industry can be seen as a natural development of that.
However, the staying power of mushroom coffee has been called into question. Indeed, many functional products do not find long-term success. For example, alternative sweeteners and activated charcoal have been advised against by experts.
In many cases, the rapid rise and fall of these products is the result of information that spreads quickly without a comprehensive understanding of the health claims being made.
Using social media, start-ups can quickly maximise a product’s exposure – especially if they capitalise on a trend popular among younger generations. However, fast-tracked success can be a double-edged sword. With a greater focus on marketing, rather than product development and financial planning, new and promising products risk becoming a “passing trend”.
Shawn Dunn, cofounder of Shroomworks, says that while social media pushed mushroom coffee forward, he thinks it would have succeeded as a product regardless. He says that certain types of mushrooms have been used in medicine for centuries – this is by no means new.
“Coffee is also the perfect vessel for mushrooms,” Shawn adds. “They pair very well on the palate; they both [often] have a kind of earthy taste.”
Grinding vs extraction
Some methods of producing mushroom coffee are better than others. This largely comes down to the two parts of fungi: the visible mushroom (fruiting body) and the root-like network beneath it (mycelium). Both parts have unique and shared health benefits.
Companies often grow mushrooms on grains like rice, oats, and corn, claiming they are a suitable substitute for natural substrates. However, in most cases, these grains do not provide the same nutritional value.
For example, grains are rich in polysaccharides (a starchy compound). During growth, mushrooms are deprived of the proper decay they would get in their natural environment; instead, they take up the starch from the grains. This added starch can lead to false-positive test results for active, beneficial compounds.
To make up for this, some companies add synthetic beta-glucans to make the product more appealing.
The mycelium of a mushroom runs deep into its substrate – especially when grown on grain – often making it very difficult to disentangle. As such, many companies then grind the mushroom and the grain together into a powder. Ingredients like “rice” or “oats” in mushroom powers indicate the consumers are paying for fillers, and potentially missing out on beneficial compounds.
It is widely accepted that, for mushrooms to be truly beneficial, their compounds must be extracted. This is because mushrooms contain an indigestible compound called chitin. This can be broken down at higher temperatures, allowing the nutrients locked within to become digestible.
“Some compounds in the mushroom are only soluble in water, and then some are only soluble in alcohol. So you do both to make sure that you’re getting a full array of compounds,” Shawn says.
Mushroom chitin and its derivatives have some potential health benefits, although research is ongoing in this area. Some studies suggest that it can be used for weight management and cholesterol reduction. Chitosan, a derivative of chitin, is sometimes used as a dietary supplement for weight loss, although its effectiveness is a subject of debate among researchers.
Indeed, this debate is mirrored across the rest of the mushroom coffee conversation – with many of its claimed health benefits under close scrutiny.
Mushroom coffee may have health benefits – but it depends
In general, brands promote mushroom coffee on the basis of improving mental clarity and focus. They also often highlight that the adaptogens contained in mushrooms help the body’s nonspecific response to stress.
Most studies to date are based on test tube trials and animal studies, with few clinical trials. Of the popular varieties used in mushroom coffee, they suggest the following benefits:
- Lion’s mane may increase the development of neurons, and improve cognitive function, short-term memory, and visual contrast sensitivity. It may also help prevent cancer.
- Turkey tail increases immunity and decreases inflammation. It may also help prevent cancer.
- Cordyceps may help with cancer prevention and the treatment of arrhythmia.
- Chaga may suppress food allergies, help fight ulcers, and protect against cancer.
- Reishi may protect against heart damage, reduce the risk of heart disease, and protect against cancer.
For many, the critical word used in scientific research on mushroom coffee is “may”. The studies that make conclusive statements on its health benefits are few and far between.
Shawn suggests that the lack of definitive health claims on mushroom coffee labels is due to suppliers’ concerns over liability. The lack of research stems from underfunded nonpharmaceutical studies and caution around human trials. Additionally, mushrooms aren’t cost-effective for pharmaceutical use.
However, the long and well-documented history of medicinal mushrooms provides Shawn with enough motivation.
“[You can] look at the long history of use – where there’s smoke, there’s going to be some fire,” he says.
A passing trend?
It’s clear that modern coffee consumers continue to demand “the next big thing”. In other words – coffee consumers love a trend, and mushroom coffee may just be the next one.
However, Shawn believes that time will tell – of the many brands now launching mushroom coffee products, going forward, only the few which have credibility will be left standing.
“After each one of those ‘fads’ or ‘trends’, there’s a handful of companies that stick around. Those are the ones that establish themselves as high-quality companies,” he says, referencing CBD.
Additionally, previous “fad” ingredients like kale and probiotic supplements have held their ground among consumers thanks in part to the extensive studies into their health benefits. Shawn believes research will show mushrooms have similar potential, and adds that the vast number of species could mean there is a huge range of health benefits.
“It might seem like mushroom coffee is going away, but really there’s an oversaturation and so the market is going to correct itself,” Shawn says. “The strong will survive.”
A common argument in opposition to mushroom coffee is that while coffee and mushrooms are healthy on their own, people may soon realise they can consume them separately and that the combined product is just clever marketing.
So, to secure themselves, mushroom coffee brands may need to identify and outline the clear benefits of combining the two products – otherwise, obscurity could well be looming on the horizon.
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