Fruiting Bodies vs. Mycelium: Unveiling the Authentic Essence of Medicinal Mushrooms
“A mycelial network is a map of a fungus’s recent history and is a helpful reminder that all life-forms are in fact processes not things. The “you” of five years ago was made from different stuff than the “you” of today. Nature is an event that never stops. As William Bateson, who coined the word genetics, observed, “We commonly think of animals and plants as matter, but they are really systems through which matter is continually passing.”
disclaimer - this article has nothing to do with our opinions on mycelium as it is or even using mycelium as an additive to your medicine regime if you so choose - it is merely intended on expanding awareness so that you are able to choose and discern for yourself what you empower your bodies with and explain why we are fruiting body mad
The burgeoning realm of medicinal mushrooms has captivated public interest, yet beneath the surface lies a crucial distinction between two forms of medicines which can determine their efficacy and ability to create the healing and allegiance we so seek, ADDITIONALLY there is little to no regulatory oversight on this emerging field, so companies can make claims and lead consumers astray with little to no repercussions. Within this sphere, the historical and scientific recognition of mushroom fruiting bodies for their medicinal prowess is well documented, this is where we celebrate the true healing potentials of these phenomenal allies - that being said there are many supplements which choose to make use of myceliated grain, unfortunately claiming the same authenticity and medicinal benefit as the fruiting body. This shift compromises the true potency and efficacy of these medicines, and as Aether Apothecary stands on the foundation of empowerment, this blog serves to delve into the disparities between mycelium and mushroom fruiting bodies, illuminating why we believe in the fruiting bodies and their healing potentials.
To understand this topic we need to start at the beginning...
The fungal kingdom is divided into several sub groups, or phyla, each with its own unique lifecycle & characteristics. One of these groups, known as basidiomycetes, includes all of the species we associate the term 'mushroom' to. The mushroom we see growing from the ground or tree is the end result of a mushrooms fantastic life cycle known as the fruiting body - to best understand how a mushroom develops we should begin with the spores. Spores are broadcast into an environment by a mushroom fruiting body, these land in a suitable habitat, & quickly germinate, producing a single-cell filament, or hypha (plural hyphae). The Hypha begin to grow through its substrate, or food source, in search of a genetic mate (spores contain only half the genetic information of their parent & thus need to join with the hypha of another spore in order to be genetically whole) Once the spore does encounter a mate, the two hyphae fuse into a joined network, which is then referred to as mycelium. This mycelium now has all the genetic information it needs to successfully grow through its environment & ultimately produce mushrooms. As the mycelium grows through its substrate, this thread-like structure continuously branches in all directions, forming an incredibly dense network. In the search for water & food. As the many thousands of mycelial tips encounter organic matter they exude a mixture of complex enzymes upon this food source in order to convert this complex matter into forms the fungus can consume. Constantly coding new DNA sequences to digest new foods, the mycelial mat has near infinite opportunity for expansion. The main energy source for these fungi is the long chain-like molecule of cellulose.
Some saprophytes have even adapted to break down lignin, the highly complex compound that makes wood hard & rigid, something few organisms on Earth are able to accomplish. As the fungus is producing these degrading enzymes it is also releasing various metabolites to protect itself from surrounding competitors in the environment. Being only one cell wall thick, the mycelium has no outer barrier to infection or contamination & thus has evolved numerous phytochemical compounds to help defend itself from harmful bacteria & competitive fungal organisms. Once the fungus has eaten through its substrate or a change in environmental conditions arises (e.g. a temperature drop & increase in humidity), the mycelium will be triggered to produce a mushroom. The mycelium will form many hyphal knots, these knots are the precursors to the development of fruiting bodies. Once the knots grow large enough they form what is commonly called pinheads, or primordia.
These primordia then develop into small buttons or conks depending on which substrate they are growing - after some time the primodria will mature into fully grown fruiting bodies (what we commonly refer to as the mushroom) at which point spores prolifically develop on a microscopic layer of fertile (spore-producing) tissue known as the hymenium. This tissue develops in mature mushrooms on the surface of the gills, teeth, or pores of the mushroom, which themselves are often found underneath the cap. A mature mushroom can produces thousands, or even millions of spores in a single day, all of which are ejected from the mushroom at an incredibly high force to enter their surrounding environment. The microscopic spores then land on a suitable food source & the cycle begins anew.
and now for some myth busting...
There are many mushroom supplements on the market these days.
Mushroom products are growing increasingly popular however what many people probably do not know, is that a large number of these products don’t actually contain any 'mushrooms' at all - despite what the marketing may have us believe, these types of products do not have the same level of potency or effectiveness as ones made from genuine mushroom fruiting bodies. For thousands of years the human race has used mushroom fruiting bodies as medicine - modern research now supports these many age old medicinal claims, however a new practice has emerged in the field of mycological medicine - The selling of myceliated grain spawn as a mushroom supplement.
Don't get us wrong mycelium is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be a great medicine when isolated & forms a vital intermediary step in the contemporary mushroom growing process. This process (myceliated grain) is relatively simple & inexpensive - a bag of sterilised grain such as sorgum or rice is inoculated with mycelium & allowed to grow out and colonise ( this takes roughly 2 weeks - 1 month ). Once colonised, the grain spawn should then technically be broadcast onto a bulk substrate i.e a wooden log to grow and eventually form a mushroom fruiting body (Chilton, n.d.). However for many companies around the world this is not the case, this vital final step of growing out the medicinal fruiting body is discarded, the grain bag with mycelium & substrate is instead ground up & sold as a mushroom supplement. This business practice has lead many to believe they are consuming a powerful medicinal mushroom supplement - when they are actually consuming mostly starch ( with many products ranging between 60-70% grain ).
NOW dont get us wrong - we love Mycelium, this intricate network of filamentous threads forms the foundational body of a fungus, and serves as the essence and vitality of mushroom growth. This complex web not only nurtures the fungus but acts as a vehicle for nutrient absorption, organic matter decomposition, and overall life cycle sustenance. It embodies a fundamental stage in the mushroom's development and has historically played a minor role in traditional medicine. The only thing we wish to highlight is that its medicinal potential pales in comparison to the fruiting body, the visible and often consumable part of the mushroom.
Although mycelium has certain bioactive properties, its therapeutic potential is relatively restrained. While it contributes to the mushroom's life cycle and possesses some medicinal elements such as enzymes, polysaccharides, and other metabolites, the fruiting body shows significant strength it in potency.
The culmination of medicinal compounds predominantly occurs within the fruiting body, manifesting as it matures and reaches its zenith. It is crucial to discern the stark difference in bioactivity and the composition of beneficial compounds between mycelium and the fruiting body. While mycelium contributes to the mushroom's growth cycle and holds some medicinal potential, the concentration and diversity of bioactive compounds indispensable for therapeutic effects significantly magnify in the mature fruiting body. These compounds, including polysaccharides, mono, di and triterpenoids, as well as other metabolites, are instrumental in various health benefits attributed to medicinal mushrooms. Scientific scrutiny utilising sophisticated tests such as megazyme beta-glucan and starch analysis and high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) for triterpenoid analysis provides a more in-depth understanding of the intricate chemistry of mycelium and mushroom fruiting bodies. These tests unveil the complex composition and content of bioactive compounds, offering a comprehensive understanding of their medicinal potential. Mycelium, although pivotal in nature and, of course, the mushroom growth cycle, demonstrates a notably lower concentration of bioactive compounds crucial for medicinal properties compared to fully developed fruiting bodies. In its pure form, mycelium displays a meagre content of medicinal compounds. For example, it typically contains, at most, approximately 10% beta-glucans by dried weight, among the essential bioactive compounds responsible for therapeutic effects attributed to medicinal mushrooms.
However, the troubling discrepancy arises when mycelium is cultivated on a grain substrate and then processed for consumption without allowing it to progress to the fruiting body stage. This practice results in a significant dilution of the beneficial compounds due to the substantial presence of grain in the final product, sometimes up to 70%. Consequently, this dilution significantly reduces the concentration of bioactive compounds, rendering the resulting product far less potent and effective. As a result, the final product from myceliated grain may contain a mere 3% beta-glucan, drastically lower than the content found in pure mycelium. This critical information about the dilution and subsequent decrease in bioactive compounds in myceliated grain products is often omitted from product labels. This omission can perpetuates a misconception about the true therapeutic potential of these products, masking their reduced efficacy due to the absence of the crucial fruiting body stage in the growth process.
The development of fruiting bodies in mushrooms represents the culmination of a multifaceted biological process that enriches them with an array of bioactive compounds essential for therapeutic and medicinal effects. These compounds include terpenoids, beta-glucans, polysaccharides, ergosterol, and a variety of metabolites, each playing a vital role in human health. The concentration and variety of these bioactive compounds are significantly higher and more diverse in fruiting bodies compared to mycelium, attributing their superior medicinal value. Mono, Di and Triterpenoids, for instance, are bioactive compounds known for their anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour, and immune-modulating properties. These compounds are present in much higher quantities in fruiting bodies compared to mycelium.
Research shows that Reishi, a renowned medicinal mushroom, is particularly rich in triterpenoids such as ganoderic acids, which exhibit potent biological activities, including antioxidant and anti-cancer effects. The absence of these essential triterpenoids in myceliated grain products limits their therapeutic potential. Moreover, beta-glucans, a type of polysaccharide found in mushroom cell walls, play a crucial role in modulating the immune system, improving cardiovascular health, and exerting anti-tumour effects. The fruiting bodies of medicinal mushrooms, such as shiitake, maiitake, and Reishi, contain significantly higher concentrations of beta-glucans, making them more effective in immune enhancement and disease prevention. On the contrary, myceliated grain products, due to their premature harvesting stage, lack these elevated levels of beta-glucans, thereby limiting their medicinal efficacy.
The process of fruiting body development also triggers the production of various metabolites that contribute to the therapeutic abilities of mushrooms. For instance, Lion's Mane mushrooms are well-known for their hericenones and erinacines, compounds found in the fruiting bodies responsible for stimulating nerve growth factors, which can potentially aid in neuro-protection and cognitive health. Mycelium lacks these in comparable amounts as they are already low molecular weight compounds found in minute amounts, by diluting with grain the consumer ends up with hericenone and erinacene content undetectable with most laboratory machinery.
The absence of the fruiting body development phase in myceliated grain products significantly diminishes the levels of these essential compounds. This absence not only reduces the concentration of bioactive elements but also limits the diversity of compounds that are vital for the wide array of therapeutic effects associated with medicinal mushrooms.
The practice of marketing myceliated grain as a substitute for genuine mushroom fruiting bodies is embedded in a complex web of ethical considerations and influences within the mushroom supplement industry. Understanding the dynamics behind this trend illuminates the trade-offs between profit maximisation and the integrity of medicinal mushroom products. Companies, in pursuit of cost-effectiveness and streamlined production, favour the cultivation of myceliated grain over the more elaborate process of growing mushroom fruiting bodies. Cultivating mycelium on grain substrates is considerably faster and less resource-intensive compared to the comprehensive process of nurturing mushrooms to their fruiting stage. This time and cost disparity becomes the driving force behind the preference for myceliated grain in the production of mushroom supplements.
The emphasis on cost reduction and expediency often overshadows the critical final phase of cultivating the actual mushroom fruiting bodies. By excluding this crucial stage from the production process, companies expedite their supply chain and reduce manufacturing expenses. However, this approach sacrifices the potency and effectiveness of the resulting products. Not including the fruiting body development phase means that the final product contains predominantly grain with minimal concentrations of the essential bioactive compounds found in authentic mushroom fruiting bodies.
Consumers are therefore inadvertently misled into believing they are purchasing potent and effective mushroom supplements when, in reality, they are acquiring products that lack vital medicinal compounds. The marketing of myceliated grain products without clearly disclosing the absence of fruiting bodies masks the true nature of the supplement, leading consumers to believe they are reaping the full benefits of medicinal mushrooms. This misinformation hampers consumers' ability to make informed decisions about their health and well-being, further emphasising the ethical ramifications of this practice. The ethical concerns stem from this misleading practice where profit-driven motives override the transparency and authenticity necessary for consumers to make educated choices. It breaches trust between consumers and producers, as the fundamental essence of the product is compromised. This practice not only deceives consumers but also disrespects the historical and scientific significance of traditional medicinal mushroom use as well as the potential therapeutic benefits that could be derived from genuine fruiting bodies. Ultimately, the preference for myceliated grain products over authentic mushroom fruiting bodies in the marketplace highlights a conflict between profit motives and ethical responsibility. Emphasising cost reduction and accelerated production at the expense of medicinal potency raises questions about the integrity and transparency of the mushroom supplement industry, calling for a reevaluation of ethical standards and consumer awareness.
Over time to come weeks we will break down more more of the nitty gritties and science on the following to help shed light on the Liquid Culture Mushrooms, Mycelium & Fruit Body Comparison, Full Spectrum Products: Truth or Hype? Extraction vs. Raw vs. Steamed.
as our first co-authored piece we hope that this information empowers you with all you need to allow you more ease and knowledge in the understanding of the allies you choose and where they come from
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Chilton, J. (2019b) What does full spectrum mean for mushroom supplements?, Nammex. Available at: https://www.nammex.com/what-does-full-spectrum-mushrooms-mean/ (Accessed: 15 November 2023).
Chilton, J. (2019c) What’s the difference between mushroom, mycelium and mycelium on grain?, Nammex. Available at: https://www.nammex.com/difference-between-mushroom-mycelium-grain/ (Accessed: 15 November 2023).
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