Mushrooms: the world's next superfood

The global mushroom industry is set to more than double within seven years, going beyond psychedelic and medicinal products and into the food-and-drink market.
mushrooms five-minute briefing 16x9 hero

Anyone interested in food and drink might have noticed that we're in the middle of a shroom boom. Mushroom jerky, mushroom body scrubs, mushroom coffee, even mushroom packaging – there's a huge range of edible and non-edible products on the market that hero the mushroom in all its weird, fleshy, spore-bearing glory. 

Named by The New York Times as ‘ingredient of the year’ for 2022, edible fungi have had a significant rise in prominence on a global scale over the past year. The UK's largest supermarket chain, Tesco, reported that sales of fresh mushrooms doubled in the year to April 2021, while a recent report by business consulting firm Grand View Research predicts that the value of the global mushroom market will jump from $55 billion to $116 billion by 2030. 

One of the main attractions is that mushrooms are a nutritional powerhouse. They contain antioxidants, vitamin D, selenium, vitamin B and – to borrow a word from the wellness influencer dictionary – adaptogens, which are ingredients that offer a variety of health perks, including helping you deal with stress. All of these nutrients can work together to improve your overall health – something that people are very keen to do after a couple of years of pandemic-induced high stress and poor health. 

‘We're having a collective reawakening to fungi,’ says Tonya Papanikolov, the founder of Rainbo, a Canadian brand that produces a mushroom-based line of supplements. ‘What was once a niche area of science and mycology [the science of fungi] is coming into the broader collective awareness and understanding,’ she says. ‘Fungi can change the world – in fact, they do every day. This trend is being driven by thousands of years of knowledge – it's being driven by scientists, mycologists [fungi scientists], healers and mycophiles [people who love mushrooms]. I believe it's because we're at a junction in history that requires new ideas, solutions and ways forward.’

Many scientists believe that fungi are one of the main ways that plants communicate with each other, using something called the ‘wood wide web’ – genuinely. This theory puts forward the idea that the fungi living in the soil surrounding plants can connect the roots of different trees and plants to one another, transferring water and nutrients and minerals. It works like a kind of tin-can telephone system, known as the mycorrhizal network.

Food for thought

Humans have used mushrooms to reach an altered state of mind for centuries. Those mind-supporting properties have also contributed to the mushroom's growing popularity in the use of tinctures and other nutritional supplements. 

It's common knowledge that many mushrooms contain psychoactive chemicals capable of inducing hallucinogenic states. A prehistoric mural in Spain featuring fungoid figures suggests that psilocybin mushrooms (AKA magic mushrooms) were used in religious rituals as far back as 7,000 years ago. In 2020, Oregon became the first state in the US to legalize psilocybin for use under supervised conditions to help treat certain mental health conditions. Studies have shown that psilocybin, when administered in a measured dose, can lead to substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer.

Chowing down on a handful of magic mushrooms isn't for everyone, but even regular supermarket and farmers' market varieties are being exploited for their medicinal properties and marketed to a wider audience than ever before. Now, more than ever, people are looking for food products that not only taste great, but also have benefits to their wider health. That's why porcini, enoki and lion's mane mushrooms are all in the perfect position to become the next superfoods. 

The mushroom market

The level of funding flowing into the mushroom space, plus all the eye-catching predictions about market growth, suggest that there's a great opportunity for anyone looking to invest in the fungi business. It's been reported that the top 11 venture capital investment firms that focus on psychedelics companies collectively pumped almost $140 million into new brands in this space over the past few years alone. 

However, there are still some obvious downsides. For one, mushrooms have a relatively short shelf life and are therefore difficult raw materials for the processing industry. Because fresh mushrooms can't be stored for long, it makes distributing them pretty difficult. 

Like with any product that requires a lot of manpower to produce, labor shortages may also have an adverse effect on the future of the mushroom industry. According to the most recent figures from the UN's International Labour Organization, the percentage of people working in agriculture globally dropped from around 44% in 1991 to 26% in 2019. Without an adequate number of farmers, meeting the increased demand for mushrooms and mushroom products won't be possible. 

One of the benefits of the mushroom crop is that, despite its volatility when it comes to storage, it requires very little land to grow. Mushroom cultivation can be done in small spaces, making it the perfect food crop for growing in crowded cities. Growing edible fungi in these areas would further help tackle that issue of storage and distribution; mushrooms could potentially be grown, purchased and consumed within a small radius.

The potential for packaging

Another growing sub-sector within the industry is packaging. Mushroom Packaging is one of many brands that have sprung up in recent years. It makes its packaging – which is thermally insulating and water-resistant – with just two ingredients: hemp hurds (the inner core fibers of a hemp stalk) and mycelium (fungal threads). Once finished with, the recipient can compost the packaging. 

Meanwhile, New York-based material innovation firm Ecovative has created sustainable products from mushrooms that mimic everything from plastic packaging to leather and meat. 

Candles made by up-and-coming Los Angeles-based brand SHRINE come packaged in arch-shaped, mushroom-based packaging. ‘Mushrooms are fascinating and, when it comes to sustainable materials, we think that we're just seeing the beginning of how versatile they are as a packaging material,’ says SHRINE's co-founder Dina Mussano. ‘Before we'd even launched, we knew we wanted to use mushroom packaging. We wanted something that was as sustainable as possible. On top of that, the mushroom packaging we chose has such a cool, sculptural vibe to it. We loved that we could mold it to any shape and have a truly unique way to showcase the product.’ 

Chew it over

With an increased interest in veganism and plant-based diets, mushrooms have become a popular meat alternative thanks to their satisfying texture, umami flavor and low environmental impact. Mushroom farming uses less land and produces much less carbon dioxide than the farming of most other vegetables. King oyster and lobster varieties of mushroom can regularly be found battered and deep-fried as an alternative to fried chicken. But its role as a meat alternative is far from a totally new sphere for the humble mushroom – UK-based food brand Quorn has been creating its own extensive range of meat-free products using fungi-based mycoprotein since the eighties.

Trend watch: the continued rise of foraging 

Marlow Renton is one of the co-founders and foraging instructors of Wild Food UK – an organization that aims to expand people's experiences of nature and educate people about edible wild plants, mushrooms, fruits, roots and flowers by running foraging courses throughout the UK. 

‘People are realizing that you can get good food for free and learn about nature at the same time,’ says Marlow. ‘Mushrooms, in particular, are something that we've never had a tradition of in the UK, so we're really just catching up on that front with most other countries.’ 

It could be both the current social climate and the environmental climate that have inspired more people in Britain to take up foraging than ever before. ‘I think the pandemic gave people a chance to explore hobbies they'd never had the time for,’ says Marlow. ‘Plus, foraging is also a green way to collect your food, and anything that reduces your carbon footprint has got more popular recently, with more awareness about global warming.’ It's also great for your mental health – one of Wild Food UK's instructors is a GP, who prescribes foraging in the same way some others prescribe gardening.

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 47, June/July 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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