Vitafoods Insights is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Preparing for the mushroom revolution

Article-Preparing for the mushroom revolution

© Vitafoods Europe 2024 Mushroom_panel_Conference.png
The cognitive and emotional benefits of mushrooms will fuel steady growth in interest and activity in the coming decade – offering enormous opportunities, but also posing unique challenges for the still-nascent category.

That was the opinion put forward by industry experts speaking during a panel discussion at Vitafoods Europe 2024, held in Geneva earlier this month.

Clinical trials are bearing fruit

Ellen Smith, a research fellow at Northumbria University, noted the booming popularity of lion’s mane as a “brain health” mushroom in recent years – driven both by a surge in social media content and its long record of historical use in East Asia.

She recently conducted a pilot trial with healthy young adults that revealed some positive findings, adding to the increasing body of evidence suggesting beneficial cognitive effects.

More scientific studies are exploring the potential of mushrooms like lion’s mane to enhance focus and memory and alleviate stress and anxiety, investigating properties that have made these mushrooms popular as food and medicine for hundreds of years. 

According to Smith, lion’s mane is currently the most studied species of mushroom when it comes to the effects on cognitive function, although others – like reishi and chaga – are also gaining interest. Further studies are needed to gain a clearer picture of the field.

“With the current state of research, it is quite difficult to explain the type of differences in bioactives and what that might mean in terms of mechanisms of action and cognitive enhancing effects,” she said.

“It is really early days in terms of randomised control trials or clinical trials within the mushroom area… [W]e don't really have any bioavailability data to understand the half-life [of lion’s mane and other mushrooms], and we don't yet understand what an optimal dose looks like.”

Kenn Israel, co-founder and partner at BeyondBrands, also expressed excitement about the emerging insights into the many different neurological wellness applications that are increasingly supported by clinical research. However, he emphasised the importance of looking at how mushrooms have been consumed across the world in the past and present.

Humans have been looking and dancing with these mushrooms for thousands of years, and dismissing the literally millennia of experience because we do not have a clinical trial may be unwise,” he said.

“There is tremendous history here, guidance and wisdom from many traditional medicinal systems. So maybe looking at some of this traditional use a little more closely over time, the science will catch up.”

The panellists all agreed on the need for larger studies and more detailed mechanistic studies. Israel advocated for the use of in silico work and digestive system models to answer important questions about toxicology and drug metabolism.

Jennifer Cooper, chief science officer at LPS Health Science, called for more trials on healthy subjects and urged for more research into acute benefits, alongside a closer look at the more frequently studied long-term benefits.

Challenges to growth

Cooper reminded the audience that while the focus is often on cognitive enhancement and brain health, mushrooms have been studied for many other indications, and have a long history of safe use in food supply. She also cautioned that the beneficial effects on many different indications are a double-edged sword.

“[T]heir chemistry is complex, and people can have allergic or gastro-intestinal allergic reactions or distress,” she said. “There has been a tremendous [number] of studies on cardiovascular activity, including blood pressure and blood sugar, which means that they have the potential to interact with diabetes medication and high blood pressure medication, and some of those as well.”

The complex and rich flavours of many mushroom species can also pose a challenge to product developers. According to Cooper, adding some grams of mushrooms into functional foods can cause compound interactions that are difficult to manage.

“[Interactions can create] off-flavours that I think are unpalatable and that are growing over time, as the stability and the shelf life of the product proceeds,” she added.

Israel, as a product developer, touched on the regulatory challenges and stressed the importance of being modest about claims and understanding the science behind the product.

“It’s crucial to align the science that supports our claim with the product we’re trading,” he said. “This is a young category… the work of hundreds of people and thousands of years of herbal medicine [can easily] get destroyed. So, let's be responsible.”

Forging fungal networks

The panellists also agreed on the need for collaboration between the industry and academia to advance understanding of the health-promoting effects of mushrooms. To foster even more collaboration between the relevant players in the category, Israel challenged the industry to form a mushroom products association.

“This is a whole category of trade that is emerging and growing fast, and needs support to cover big agenda items, foster collaboration, and promote best practices and high-quality science,” he said.

A final takeaway, as the industry is expected to double in revenue globally by 2030, is that the race for intellectual property in this area is intensifying. Cooper encouraged people to “put a toe in the water” today, to avoid having to play catch-up in the future.

She said: “Because of the complexity of the chemistry and the earliness of the data, there's tremendous opportunity for not just drug companies, but for supplement companies to get intellectual property in the category… [I]f you are interested in these ingredients, get started right away – because five years from now, the category is going to be twice its size.”