How a Mushroom Becomes a Superfood
What makes a food super?
It’s a fair question given the seemingly growing marketplace of superfoods with super benefits. And when almost all foods seem the same, it’s fair to ask, Are these foods as good as they say? And, are any of these products actually unique?
Tear open a packet of Cordyceps Mushroom Elixir, and the powder inside may not register as “mushrooms.”
After all, fungi are inherently mysterious to begin with, despite the fact that various cultures around the world have been eating them for thousands of years. It’s hard to wrap your head around a kingdom that contains an estimated 1.5 million species and includes variations that are poisonous, psychedelic, just plain delicious (truffles, anyone?!), and also medicinal.
Add to that the long journey from spore to powdered mushroom coffee, and your head is likely spinning already.
We’re here to help, to explain exactly how that process works—from mycelium spreading beneath the soil in forests in Siberia, to high-tech extraction that makes the incredible nutrients in mushrooms available for your body to absorb — some mushrooms are more super than others. Here’s exactly what you should be looking for in your cup.
That’s part of the focus of my book Healing Mushrooms: A Practical and Culinary Guide to Using Mushrooms for Whole Body Health.
Foraging Something Super
When you picture sourcing mushrooms, you likely conjure an image of a hippie chick plucking them from a shaded log in the forest—and that’s not totally off.
Four Sigmatic sources about 20 to 25 percent of its mushrooms via wild foraging, and the process of gathering wild mushrooms is actually what initially inspired founder Tero Isokauppila’s interest in fungi.
Mushrooms grow all over the world, but the best grow in extreme conditions. “Cold climate countries like Russia and Canada are great for foraging. In the United States, great states include Colorado, Washington, Vermont, and Maine,” explains Isokauppila, the author of Healing Mushrooms.
The chaga mushrooms Four Sigmatic uses grow in the wild on birch trees in unpolluted areas of eastern Siberia (picture that landscape!). And the “unpolluted” point is important: Because chaga has a growth period of 10 to 20 years, it can absorb pollution, and that’s not what you want to be ingesting alongside your antioxidants. On the flipside, to protect the environment, a special collection process is used. Only part of the chaga is removed, while the rest of the mushroom is left to reproduce on the tree.
Buyer beware: where are your mushrooms from? Make sure they are sourced correctly to make sure you’re adding something to your body that you want and that you can trust.
Certain annual mushrooms, however, are incredibly hard to forage at their peak moment, which is why the rest of Four Sigmatic’s fungi come from farms. Reishis, for example, are cultivated in logs with a semi-permanent roof on top to protect them. And they’re picked at the prime moment, when the mycelium has been able to concentrate all its power into a good fist-sized mushroom.
Processing (Done Right) Is Essential
What’s a mycelium, you ask? It’s important to understand the components of mushrooms before digging into how they’re processed.
The mycelium is like a mushroom’s root system. It looks like a giant underground web and is what the fruiting bodies (comparable to the “fruit” of a plant) sprout from. Those fruiting bodies release spores, which drop and germinate into what becomes the mycelium. (It’s the circle of fungus.)
The fruiting bodies—which usually consist of stems and caps—are where the functional magic is because they only pop up after the mycelium has spread out like crazy and collected so many nutrients that it needs to start reproducing. Naturally, Four Sigmatic only uses the fruiting bodies in its products, which is exactly what you want to be looking for in a high-quality product.
Once they’re collected or harvested, a careful extraction process kicks off. “We work with world-class extraction partners in Asia who have done mushroom extractions for multiple generations and predominantly work with pharmaceutical companies,” Isokauppila explains. (Fun fact: experts estimate about 40 percent of the drugs currently on the market directly or indirectly utilize mushrooms. You may have heard of one: penicillin?)
Extraction is incredibly important because the active components in the mushroom need to be made bioavailable. If you just grabbed a lion’s mane and started chewing, your body wouldn’t have the ability to utilize the nutrients in the same way (and it wouldn’t be that pleasant of a culinary experience, FYI).
Four Sigmatic uses a state-of-the-art process called dual extraction to make sure you’re getting every last health-promoting compound each mushroom contains.
Here’s how it works: First, the mushrooms are soaked in alcohol for multiple weeks to pull out fat-soluble compounds like terpenoids, which are impervious to water. That process results in a tincture. Then, the mushrooms are soaked in hot water to pull out the water-soluble compounds, called polysaccharides (You might be interested in the power of polysaccharides, which you can read about here.). The two extractions are then combined, and via a process called spray drying, the liquids are converted to a powder and all the alcohol is removed. Those powders are as potent as possible, which is why one packet of the Mushroom Elixirs contains 1000 to 1500 mg of the pure mushroom extract.
Buyer beware: dual-extraction. Remember that name. If your product doesn’t have it, it’s likely not going to be as effective as you want.
Finally, before making their way into the products, Four Sigmatic’s mushroom extracts undergo rigorous testing on five fronts—for heavy metals, microbiological quality, aflatoxins, pesticides, and irradiation. State-of-the-art testing in the best labs ensures that every extract is clean and pure (and ready for you, dear fungi-lover).
From Good to Great: Formulation Upgrades
Good souring and good processing makes a good product. Something great? That requires one final step to ensure that not only is the taste good, but that your body is primed to absorb and benefit from every nutrient in the mushrooms -- whether it’s a coffee, tea, or superfood mix or cocktail.
Using the carefully sourced and extracted chaga, reishi, cordyceps, and lion’s mane mushrooms, the Four Sigmatic team then creates all of the product formulations in house, adding other functional ingredients to enhance each mushroom’s medicinal properties. Think eleuthero, an adaptogen that works synergistically with chaga, or rose hips, which add vitamin C to the Cordyceps Elixir.
Of course, as you’re sipping your superfood Mushroom Coffee, you can feel free to forget about all of the hard work that goes into harnessing the incredible benefits of mushrooms. It’s just nice to know what’s really behind that happy, healthy energy boost you’re feeling, right?