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In The Market For Mushrooms

As research supporting the medicinal benefits of mushrooms expands, retailers will find success in passing information to interested shoppers.

When it comes to supplements, the beauty of attaining time-tested status is often found in the awareness of retailers and shoppers alike. Logically, if a product has broken into the market and enjoyed long-term success, even shaky introductions can give way to a general understanding—very rarely does a supplement enjoy such long-term use without an educational accompaniment.

Unfortunately, this is the unusual case with medicinal mushroom supplements.
Though they enjoy a long, thorough history of successful use, it is only in the most recent years that the category has experienced notable growth and awareness among mainstream consumers and Western medical professionals.

“People have always used mushrooms as food and medicine, and many mushrooms have long been used throughout Asia for medicinal purposes,” explained EcoNugenics, Inc.’s (Santa Rosa, CA) Isaac Eliaz, MD, Lac, MS. “The practice of using mushrooms in Chinese herbal medicines has been recorded in early records of the Materia Medica. The earliest book on medicinal compounds in China, the Shen Noug’s Herbal (100-200 AD), recorded the medicinal effects of several mushrooms, including Ganoderma lucidum, Poria cocos, Tremella fuciformis and others.” 

Indeed, as Mark J. Kaylor, vice president of education and research at Mushroom Wisdom (East Rutherford, NJ), explained, mushrooms have been used throughout history for everything from fly and insect repellant to children’s toys, to fire starters and sketchpads, in addition to their many medicinal uses.

And while today’s mushrooms still boast the health benefits of those of yesteryear, the mushroom category has found a way to marry the ancient with the modern.

According to David Winston, RH (AHG), president of Herbalist & Alchemist (Washington, NJ), in the past, those who used mushrooms boiled them in water for several hours to create a tea. Today, medicinal mushrooms are available in many other forms, he said.“They are available in liquid forms such as tinctures. In addition, mushrooms are now available in other forms such as spray-dried extracts in capsules.Mycelial extracts such as cordyceps are extremely expensive when gathered in the wild, but can be grown on a soybean base and the mycelium harvested for extraction. These are new products,” he explained. “And of course we have the fractionated extracts, especially maitake, which all claim to be more medicinally active. So I would say that it’s the dose forms that have changed, and the number of product offerings has increased. And of course there’s more research on mushrooms over the past 10 or 15 years as well.” 

“Although mushrooms are still harvested in their natural habitats, our ability to cultivate many different mushroom species has improved greatly over the past few decades. Large numbers of scientific studies on medicinal mushrooms over the past three decades have confirmed the traditional uses and also demonstrated new applications for a wide range of health benefits,” explained Eliaz, adding that in recent years, attention has focused on various Immune-boosting and anti-cancer properties as well as other health benefits.“These broad spectrum medicinal properties have attracted the interest of many pharmaceutical companies, which are viewing the medicinal mushroom as a rich source of innovative biomedical molecules,” he added. As a result, awareness is slowly increasing.

“Medicinal mushrooms have come a long way as of late,” agreed Kaylor.“While many traditional cultures held mushrooms in high esteem and frequently associated them with the gods, fairies and immortality, we in the West, until recently, have thought of them mostly as food. This limited focus is expanding quickly as more people engage these mushrooms for often very serious disorders and see phenomenal results.” 

Budding Awareness

As with omega-3s, the boom in the supplement aisle occurs when the Western medical community finally jumps on board with the findings that the natural community has known for years. This phase of medical acceptance is just beginning to flower in the medicinal mushroom category as many supplement manufacturers find research on their side, and even find their own products as the subjects of such research.

Mushroom Wisdom, for example, enjoys an ongoing relationship with researchers at the New York Medical Center. “Initially, these researchers were very skeptical about any serious, legitimate, medicinal application for mushrooms,” Kaylor remembered. “Now, the lead researcher is using SX-Fraction himself for diabetes.”

Similarly, Fungi Perfecti (Olympia, WA) products are the recent subjects of clinical trials at leading cancer research institutes, said Paul Stamets, the company’s owner and founder.

“I think the medicinal mushrooms category has slowly changed over the past five to 10 years,” agreed Winston. “High quality mushroom products can have a profound impact on people’s health, and as more consumers have that positive experience, the category grows slowly but steadily.This is in contrast to categories with more rapid growth fueled by media reports of clinical studies, like fish oil and vitamin D.” 

According to Winston, the majority of the conventional medical community is still unaware of medicinal mushrooms, despite current research, since many of the studies are taking place overseas.“As the research increases, I think the medical community will become more comfortable with these products, especially where there are good, randomized, double-blind, controlled trials showing that the products indeed work, and work in ways that pharmaceutical medications simply cannot,” he said.

This medical knowledge is trickling down to mainstream shoppers, who are traditionally hard to convince when it comes to nutritional supplements. “Retailers and consumers are taking medicinal mushrooms more seriously as legitimate remedies and not just as a topping for their pizza,” quipped Kaylor.
“The combination of more people using medicinal mushrooms and more research exploring and confirming their benefits is making for an exciting and growing category.” 

Immunity

Without a doubt, the main allure for shoppers in the mushroom category is increased immune function, and many companies are introducing products into the market to meet this demand.

“Medicinal mushrooms are immunopotentiating; they enhance all immune function,” explained Winston. “Some of them such as reishi, maitake and cordyceps are also immune amphoterics.” According to Winston, an immune amphoteric helps to strengthen and nourish the immune system, and by doing so helps the immune system to re-regulate itself. If the immune system is hyperactive, as in the case of allergies, it helps to down regulate excess immune response; in those with hypoimmune system issues such as cancer, HIV or chronic Lyme disease, the amphoteric helps to strengthen the immune reservoir (the body’s ability to mount an immune response).

And since it nourishes and strengthens the overall immune response, it is useful for autoimmune diseases, which can combine immune depletion and excess simultaneously.

Herbalist & Alchemist offers extracts of reishi, cordyceps, chata, maitake and shiitake. “We offer them as single extracts, and also combine them in our Seven Precious Mushrooms formula,” Winston said. “We also use reishi in many of our immune system balancing formulas such as Immune Balance Formula and Immune Adapt.” 

Mushroom Wisdom also offers products for immune health. In fact, the company offers nine different medicinal mushrooms: agaricus, coriolus, cordyceps, lion’s mane, maitake, reishi, shiitake, tremella and the recently introduced chaga and meshima. “All of these mushrooms have potent immune and antioxidant benefits, with each having its own nuanced applications and energetics,” said Kaylor. “Immune system wise, these mushrooms work primarily by increasing and improving immune function often along with an array of complementary actions. For instance, the reishi mushroom also demonstrates potent anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and liver supportive actions to name but a few.” 

EcoNugenics offers MycoPhyto Complex, which is a combination of six potent varieties of medicinal mushrooms, and also includes a mix of immune enhancing herbs and organic brown rice. In addition, Organic10- Mushroom Formula offers shoppers a blend of 10 potent medicinal mushrooms, for long-term immune support. “When combined in a compreHensive formula with additional beta glucans, medicinal mushrooms are an excellent way to boost your body’s natural defenses and combat infection, especially on a long term basis, with no side effects,” said Eliaz. “Medicinal mushrooms contain substances that bind to receptors on our different immune cells, and as such, can work to dramatically improve immune function by directing and harmonizing the many different functions of the immune system to effectively combat a number of medical conditions and diseases.” 

Flowering Health Benefits

While immunity might be the most common denominator when it comes to mushrooms, the category does offer an array of other health benefits. “Only fairly recently has there been somewhat of an exclusive focus on utilizing mushrooms for immune support,” said Kaylor. “Thankfully, this has been changing as of late as companies make more efforts to promote medicinal mushrooms for a wider array of actions and as researchers expand their areas of exploration.” 

According to Kaylor, the market has changed dramatically as a result, as research revealed that the maitake mushroom may be an effective way to lower blood sugar and insulin levels.Further, as Winston explained, reishi has been used for anxiety, stress and insomnia in Asian medicine, while chaga has a long history of use throughout Russia, Scandanavia and northern North America for treating cancer. Cordyceps, he said, is helpful in kidney function, and is also used for male and female infertility, fatigue and to enhance athletic performance.

“Our target is most anyone looking to maintain a healthy lifestyle,” explained David Allen, sales manager at North American Herb & Spice (Buffalo Grove,IL) . “The marketing of medicinal mushrooms for the most part has focused on boosting immune function, which is fine, but we felt the chaga is much more than that.” The company offers Chago-o-Power, an emulsion with the power of wild handpicked oregano oil, in addition to a chaga face cream, body cream, ChagaMax capsule, Chaganol sports drink and ChagaSyrup made from resveratrol rich wild grape extract and miscadine concentrate.

From EcoNugenics is BreastDefend, which is designed for women to promote optimal breast health; Integrative Digestion Formula, which contains minerals, medicinal mushrooms, herbs and essential nutrients; Integrative Metabolic Formula featuring medicinal mushrooms and Chinese, ayurvedic and Tibetan herbs to support healthy glucose metabolism, reduce fat absorption and help reduce sugar cravings; and Circutol, which contains medicinal mushrooms, herbs and nutraceuticals for healthy circulation and cardiovascular health.Clearly, mushrooms are making their mark on more than the immune market.

Mushroom Merchandising

Since mushrooms are sprouting up in more than just the immune aisle, there are a number of ways that retailers can merchandise the products to ensure a sale and increase awareness.

“There is not enough awareness of tree mushrooms,” said Allen.

“North American Herb & Spice provides store trainings, literature and media to further educate. But we truly count on the stores because they are our primary resource in educating the consumer.” 

As Stamets explained, merchandising mushroom products at eye level, on end-caps and in prime picking-zones is one way to spread information. “Cross merchandising in cold and flu, allergy and immune support categories also supports this,” he said. “Making available DSHEA-compliant educational materials, including research and scientific data, is also essential.” Fungi Perfecti offers retailers a DSHEA-compliant training DVD for in-store viewing—for staff and for shoppers.

“Many medicinal mushrooms are also sold as foods, and are quite interesting looking,” Winston pointed out. “A display of those mushrooms with bottled extracts of formulas could be quite striking.” But as Kaylor stressed, the best course of action is always for retailers to be as informed as they possibly can be.

Education is an important part of Gail Murphy’s plan at Minglement, a Vashon, WA-based natural products store. As the store’s manager, she said she has noticed that most new customers don’t come into the store asking explicitly for mushroom supplements, and is trying to make the category a bit user-friendlier.
“I tend to put little shelf talkers that I make up myself to describe the different mushroom supplements, especially now that many of the ones we carry are named after the mushroom and not the benefit,” she said. “For new customers, it’s hard to tell what they’re used for, so I put little descriptions of what they might be used for. I also have a poster that shows each of the medicinal mushrooms and their qualities, backed up by research.” 

According to Julia Hagler, wellness manager at Greenville, SC-based Garner’s Natural Life, the store is known for its displays, and showcases its mushroom supplements on a table with mushrooms and books. Still, Hagler maintains that the biggest merchandising tool is word of mouth. “A lot of the enthusiasm for mushrooms has come from customers who have used them and come in and tell me that they had a great experience,” she said. “I don’t think that mushrooms are in the media too often, so it’s all about word of mouth.” 

Murphy said she has also noticed the value of storytelling when it comes to this category, and can speak about her own success story fighting joint pain with mushroom supplementation. “I’ve been pain-free for five years,” she said, “and we have a lot of customers who come in with stories like that. We can’t guarantee that it will work for anyone, but we can say that between 80 and 90 percent of our customers who try them think they’re phenomenal.”

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