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The Mushroom Craze

The boom of mushrooms is becoming more and more evident as we progress through 2021. Grocery shoppers are buying mushrooms at a near record pace. According to grocery sales data, they have been one of the top three produce items realizing the highest sales in 2020 compared to the same period last year.

Kroger, one of the largest US grocery retailers, released last December its “Top 7 Food Trend Predictions for 2021.”, in which they stated that “2021 will be a breakout year for mushrooms”. Similarly, Whole Foods, in its “The Next Big Thing” trend forecast publication mentioned mushrooms as a key trending ingredient for 2021.

But what’s the hype all about? Are they actually a superfood? What are the most recent innovations regarding this product?

First, let’s talk about what a mushroom actually is. You may be surprised to know that what you’re eating is actually the fungi’s reproductive organ. It is somewhat like the fruit, except that the “seeds” it produces are in fact millions of microscopic spores.

They form underneath the mushroom’s cap and get blown away into the wind or spread by animals. Finally, when they land on a suitable soil they germinate and form a network of microscopic roots (mycelium), starting the cycle again.

So mushrooms are not vegetables. Actually, they are not even plants. Fungi are their own kingdom of life and as such they have nutritional properties completely different to fruits or vegetables. From a culinary perspective, they are even closer to meat than they are to veggies. They have a high branched-chain amino acid composition, which is usually only found in animal-based protein sources. What is more, they contain all nine essential amino acids (EAAs) we find in all meat, but just a few plants, which are typically missing one or more EAAs. In fact, mushroom powders can even rival the quality of their animal-derived counterparts, as they are nearly equivalent to the protein quality found in meat.

So it won’t come as a surprise that more and more food manufacturers and startups have began to explore the possibilities of fungi as a meat alternative. One of the most notable companies out there is Prime Roots. The company uses koji, a Japanese fungi, to create several kinds of seafood, as well as chicken, bacon or beef alternatives. Another interesting company gearing up to launch its first product is Meati. They use the mushroom’s mycelium, the underground root structure of the fungi, as the main ingredient for their products. Soon they will launch their “mycelium steak”, that allegedly cooks and sears just like a regular ol’ steak. Or what about Moku’s mushroom jerky?

Okay, so mushrooms are pretty cool right? Well, we’re just getting started. Not only they have unique nutritional benefits, but they also come with an array of medicinal values, preventing cell damage, helping us maintain a good inmune system and even treating mental health issues. That’s what we call “functional foods”, or nutraceuticals, which are highly nutritious foods associated with a number of powerful health benefits.

Functional foods are all the rage right now. From turmeric immunity shots to adaptogen infused trail mixes it is clear that the consumer interest in health and nutrition is here to stay. And mushrooms are not falling behind. ‘Shrooms have made its way into almost every product category: mushroom infused coffee mixes, chocolates, protein powders, seasonings, supplements, chips, protein bars, face masks, serums, candles (?)… You name it.

“Shrooms have made its way into almost every product category: mushroom infused coffee mixes, chocolates, protein powders, seasonings, supplements, chips, protein bars, face masks, serums, candles (?)… You name it.”

But experts advice us to be cautious here, as marketing claims can go far beyond what is supported by the science. There’s a lack of evidence from clinical trials on whether this medicinal mushrooms help prevent or treat disease in humans. Studies on animals show very promising results, but more research needs to be done.

Another thing to take into account is the percentage of mushroom powder these products contain: definitely a bite of chocolate with a sprinkle of reishi won’t magically boost your immune system. Which leads us to another very important point: consistency. Any kind of supplement must be taken regularly for a rather long period of time to have significant effects on our body.  So, while some of these products can be a nice quirky treat every now and then, it’s obviously not advisable to source your daily dose of vitamin D from your over priced shiitake bbq chips.

Mushrooms are incredible beings. But, as with any other hyped food, some brands will just jump on the bandwagon to make profit out of trends. The world of fungi is strange, fascinating and full of possibilities. Mushrooms have the potential to become key actors in lowering the consumption of meat, building alternative materials and fighting climate crisis. If mushrooms are having a moment, let’s take this opportunity to make it count.