Thousands of years ago, people in Asia, the Americas, North Africa, Europe, and beyond were using mushrooms for health and mystical purposes. In recent years, the promotion of “functional” mushrooms is causing a surge in the market as scientists work to catch up with what our ancient ancestors knew, that some edible fungi appear to relieve pain, promote immunity, improve focus, reduce fatigue, and more. It’s common now to see exotic fungi both dainty and robust—some still growing on logs—at farmers’ markets and supermarkets, sometimes with helpful ready-to-go packaging marked “BBQ” or “Stir-fry.” The global market for functional fungi was valued at $31.8 billion in 2021, according to MarketWatch (November 2022), which noted that the figure may grow to over $51 billion by 2027.

Sales of fresh mushrooms at grocery stores have increased 20% over 10 years, according to the Mushroom Council, a US industry group. So many Americans are doing culinary experimentation that mushrooms were pronounced the “ingredient of the year” by The New York Times in 2022, and that’s a trend expected to continue beyond 2023.

Want to support good gut health? Mushrooms like these blue oysters grown by Golden Mushroom Co. are a great source of dietary fiber. Find more dietary tips that support a healthy microbiome and read Follow Your Gut. Image: Bhadri Kubendran for Edible San Diego.

Standardizing the Industry

Consumers should take note of a few caveats to spend their money wisely. “Research into medicinal mushrooms has progressed exponentially, but much remains to be done,” according to one report published by the National Institute of Health (NIH). “Many species remain unstudied or underestimated in terms of their pharmacological properties ... It is also necessary to standardize the production of mushroom supplements throughout the supply chain, from cultivation to the extraction and preparation of the commercial formulation, as well as precise monitoring and regulation to ensure high-quality levels.”

Edible fungi is a routine subject students learn about at the San Diego campus of Bastyr University, a naturopathic school. Chair of clinical studies, Baljit Kaur Khamba, N.D. MPH and Ed.D, advises consumers to include a qualified naturopath in the discussion about how to incorporate mushrooms into a health routine. She’s concerned about the potential for nutrient loss if mushrooms are overfarmed, and she also worries that unscrupulous parties wanting to make easy money on a trend could promote inferior products. “Whenever something becomes popular, we also need to exercise caution ... I hope we continue to use mushrooms in the natural ways they’ve been used all these years,” she says.

Mushroom Benefits

Some mushrooms are known to be “antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, anticancer, antioxidant,” and may prevent damage to the liver, work against allergies, aid our immune system, and include prebiotic properties, according to a report published by the National Library of Medicine. Khamba says mushrooms “have become a hot topic” for good reason and lists some positive properties and effects:

  • Antioxidants – Vitamins A and E and selenium
  • Cardiovascular – Reishi may reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Cognitive – Lion’s mane may help with growth and maintenance of brain cells
  • Digestion – Chaga is high in fiber, so it’s a prebiotic
  • Immune support – Maitake and shiitake are typically used to fight infections and they can help with vitamin D2 absorption
  • Mood – Reishi can improve mood and reduce fatigue; it contains B vitamins, which are often stripped during refining processes of other dietary sources, e.g., grains
  • Neurological – Mushrooms are anti-inflammatory; whether it’s the brain or another body part, they can help calm flare-ups
  • Protein – Large fungi can be good meat substitutes for vegans

Khamba, who is an associate professor of naturopathic medicine, recommends people interested in cancer therapies can read about the uses of mushrooms on the National Cancer Institute’s website.

Ways to Consume

Khamba suggests an easy way to get started with healing mushrooms is to buy a powder containing several varieties. Her parents were from India, so she enjoys spices. In fact, Khamba is so passionate about making her own spiced morning mushroom concoction that she brings her mug to class and shares instructions for her recipe: First she makes a chai latte, then adds mushroom powder and oat milk to create a “warm smoothie.” She says some people might enjoy adding cacao to mask the earthiness.

Om Mushrooms is a company making powders from 11 species at their Carlsbad facility. Founders Sandra Carter and Steve Farrar have 30 years of combined experience.

Consumers interested in eating fresh fungi can check out Mountain Meadow Mushrooms in North Escondido, which has been in business since 1952. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, they only produced more common mushrooms but delved into growing specialty varieties due to increased public interest. Owner Roberto Ramirez says many people have shown interest in the possible health benefits. Lion’s mane and shiitake are now two of Mountain Meadow’s most popular varieties. They also offer tinctures, tours, and delivery. Consumers can buy their mushrooms at the farm or at farmers’ markets. Ramirez and his wife, Olga, are careful not to prescribe anything, but Olga says they read a lot of credible sources to stay up to speed on research.

Another North County exotic mushroom producer is Hokto-Kinoko, a subsidiary of Hokto of Japan, which has owned a research institute in Japan since 1983. Hokto-Kinoko launched its San Marcos plant in 2008, with the goal of getting Americans to eat more mushrooms as the Japanese do. The company focuses on exotic varieties to carve a niche for themselves, and they mostly supply to restaurants. Robotics are used for planting and harvesting, so there’s almost no human handling of the products, and some of their Japanese technology is even patented.

Because they are grown in a controlled environment, Hokto-Kinoko mushrooms don’t require washing, according to the company. However, in general, fresh raw mushrooms should always be cleaned, according to Ramirez, due to the possibility of toxins. Mountain Meadow uses a growing medium based on straw and horse manure from the stables at Del Mar Fairgrounds. Once it has been treated and used, it’s available as free compost for gardeners and agricultural enterprises.

Regarding fresh mushrooms, Ramirez stresses that some fungi in the wild are deadly to humans. It takes a highly experienced mycologist to identify them in nature because one mushroom may mimic the appearance of another during a certain stage of growth but it will look completely different as it matures, he says.

A safer way to identify fungi is with a group of experienced people like those involved with education and event offerings from the San Diego Mycological Society.

Dried mushrooms, gummies, capsules, and extracts are easy to use, or consumers can find edible fungi infused in chocolate products or coffee drinks. Combining extracts of multiple varieties in one tincture may increase their synergistic effect and can also make some of the beneficial elements more bioavailable, according to Edible Alchemy, which has been making extracts since 2011.

A variety of Mountain Meadow Mushrooms including lion’s mane, shiitake, pioppino, and king trumpets. Image: Julie Pendray for Edible San Diego.

To Eat Mycelia or Not?

Some consumers wonder whether they might get extra benefits by eating the roots (mycelia) of their mushrooms as well. While the thread-like roots contain a lot of nutrients, Khamba says the “fruiting body” is so healthful that it’s not necessary to eat the mycelia too.

Ramirez makes the point that mycelia intertwines so much with the growing substrate, whether that’s wood chips, straw, or grains, that it’s hard to know the nutrient level of products, compared weight for weight, when mycelia may still be included. Some companies state they remove mycelia and substrate down to a certain percentage during production. Consumers can sharpen their shopping skills by reading labels thoroughly.


The conversation isn’t just about our bodies and what’s on our plate; it’s about our minds. This year, so many people flocked to the Mushroom Summit in Denver, Colorado, that organizers are considering a bigger venue for 2024, according to cochair Jessica Davis, founder and owner of Edible Alchemy in El Cajon. The event was co-hosted with Psychedelic Science (PsyCon) and billed as the “premier conference and trade show for the booming psychedelic industry.” PsyCon drew 10,000 attendees and sold out, according to the website. Together, the two events were promoted as “the largest psychedelic gathering in history.”

Oregon is currently the only state that has legalized the therapeutic use of psilocybin (the active compound in hallucinogenic “magic mushrooms” or “‘shrooms”). Similar laws are awaiting signature in California and Colorado. The California bill, if signed by the governor, would legalize the personal possession, cultivation, and use of natural psychedelics DMT, mescaline (except for peyote), psilocybin, and psilocin by people age 21 and over. Advocates are preparing for a booming industry, encouraged by studies and trials that show psychedelics may alter serotonin, creating a positive “mystical experience” that can lead to enhancing people’s sense of interconnectedness. Johns Hopkins University has been a leader in psychedelic research, which has been made possible by at least $17 million in funding. What we know so far is that psilocybin can sometimes be useful in treating anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and addiction when used in conjunction with therapy.

Blue oyster mushrooms from Golden Mushroom Co. Image: Bhadri Kubendran for Edible San Diego.
“The annual average yield of mushrooms is 7.1 pounds per square foot—meaning up to 1 million pounds of mushrooms can be produced on just one acre.” - Eric Davis, Mushroom Council

Sustainability and Mycoremediation

Mushrooms can be a sustainable crop, Eric Davis, a spokesman for the Mushroom Council, explains: “One study measured the water, energy, and carbon emissions required to grow and harvest fresh mushrooms in the United States. The study finds production of a pound of mushrooms requires only 1.8 gallons of water and 1.0 kilowatt hours of energy and generates only 0.7 pounds of CO2 equivalent emissions. In addition, the annual average yield of mushrooms is 7.1 pounds per square foot—meaning up to 1 million pounds of mushrooms can be produced on just one acre.”

Since fungi are both decomposers and recomposers, they can be used to break down pollutants—from hazardous chemical waste, oil spills, or fire debris, for example—and create healthy soil. This is known as mycoremediation. While more research is needed, this practice has the potential “to help alleviate two of the world’s major problems” by cleaning up our planet while also providing mushrooms as an important protein source, according to a report published by the NIH. It notes that the safety aspects of using a fruiting body raised on pollutants still warrants further study.

Experimentation suggests that mushroom mycelia can remove heavy metals and break down plastic, and they have been used in contaminated water as well as soil. Proponents say using mycelia is less expensive than the usual approach of digging up soil and incinerating it. One study notes, however, that spent mushroom compost (SMC) also appears to be useful in this practice. On the downside, mycoremediation takes longer than the industry standard and success depends on the type of mycelia used and the local soil, so the practice has to be customized. As of yet, funding for testing mycoremediation has been limited and more experimentation is still needed.

Past and Future

The oldest mycelium still alive spans nearly four square miles in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, according to Scientific American, and it could be 2,500 to 8,700 years old. Not only does research show we may share similar DNA, but mycelia is thought to have a kind of intelligence and communication ability, according to research reported in Smithsonian Magazine.

Studying this ancient “mind,” its conversations, and its benefits is mind-blowing. It’s a path to tread carefully—one step excitement, one step fascination, one step wisdom—like mycologists in ancient forests, assessing the beauty and the risk.

*This article is not intended to provide nutritional advice. Consult your health practitioner before making any changes, especially if you are on a special diet. Even natural products can have side effects if used incorrectly or in conjunction with pharmaceutical products.






Originally published in issue 72.

Cover image by Becka Vance for Edible San Diego.
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