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The Nutritional and Therapeutic Health Benefits of Mushrooms, with Jeff Chilton

The Nutritional and Therapeutic Health Benefits of Mushrooms, with Jeff Chilton

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How Jeff began studying and cultivating mushrooms
  • The history of the medicinal use of mushrooms
  • The benefits to using mushrooms therapeutically as a form of medicine
  • Beta-glucans and other healing compounds in mushrooms
  • The structure of what a mushroom actually is
  • The difference between mushroom and mycelium
  • What’s happening now in the marketplace with so-called mushroom supplements that actually contain mycelium

Show notes:

Hey, everyone. Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. I’ve been using superfood mushrooms in my clinical practice for over 15 years. As many of you know, I was originally trained as an herbalist and acupuncturist. So I have a lot of experience with these compounds. They have a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine—up to 7,000 years, according to some accounts. And they’re among the first substances that I learned to use clinically when I was treating patients way back in the student clinic. So I have a deep respect for and a lot of experience with these incredible compounds.

That’s why I’m really excited to welcome my guest, Jeff Chilton, on the show today. He studied ethnomycology at the University of Washington in the late ‘60s. And in the early ‘70s, he was already working on commercial mushroom farms and diving deep into the world of mycology. He has been involved in the research and development of shiitake, oyster, and enoki mushrooms, which resulted in the earliest U.S. fresh shiitake sales, way back in 1978. And he’s been very active [in] and a strong advocate for mushrooms and ethnomycology in the years since then. He’s done perhaps more than anybody else that I can think of to make these amazing superfoods available for consumption in the [United States]. And today, he’s working hard to correct some of the myths and misconceptions that are becoming more prevalent as mushrooms get popular in the supplement space. So we’re going to be covering what some of those myths and misconceptions are and correcting them [during] the show. We’re going to talk about mushrooms as food and medicine, their nutritional and overall health benefits, the history of mushroom cultivation, and some of the product and quality issues with mushroom supplements as this market continues to expand.

This is really important for anyone who is currently taking [a] mushroom supplement or drinking mushroom coffee or using any food or health product with mushrooms because, as you’ll find out in the show, there’s a lot of deception, both unintentional and intentional, out there, and it’s really important that you educate yourself so that you know that you’re getting what you think you’re getting when you choose a mushroom product. I really enjoyed this interview. I think you will, as well. Let’s dive in.

Chris Kresser:  Jeff Chilton, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show. I’ve really been looking forward to this.

Jeff Chilton:  Well, thanks for having me on, Chris. I’m looking forward to it, as well.

Chris Kresser:  So, of all the people involved in this field, I think you’re one of the OGs, as we like to say, at this point. You’ve been working with mushrooms, I think, since the 1960s. Correct me if I’m wrong. So we’re talking about 60 years of experience in the field in lots of different capacities. So, what drew you to this in the first place? How did you get interested in mushrooms?

Jeff Chilton:  Well, if you’re growing up in the Pacific Northwest, where we’re very famous for rain, we have the perfect climate for mushrooms up here. So early on, as a child, I was able to get out and do mushrooming with friends or fathers of my friends, because my dad wasn’t into mushrooming at all. And then, I went to the University of Washington in 1965. While I was there, my field of study was anthropology. But [the] University of Washington was one of the few universities in the United States that actually had a mycology department, if you can imagine that. So I was able to study some mycology there. And I turned my anthropological studies into the study of the use of mushrooms for food, for medicine, and for shamanic purposes. And look, Chris, [it was] the ‘60s; we were experimenting with a lot of shamanic plants, and mushrooms were one of them. In fact, we had psilocybin mushrooms growing on the campus of the University of Washington. So it was really quite an interesting time. And that was kind of what started me off in this field.

Chris Kresser:  Fantastic. Yeah, I mean, there [are] so many directions we could go in this conversation. And I do think I want to have you back to explore psilocybin with some of the traditional uses shamanically in traditional cultures, but also some of the new research that’s being published. As we were chatting [about] before the show, there’s a lot of great developments happening now where we’re starting to better understand, at least from a modern research perspective, what the potential of psilocybin and other mushroom compounds [is]. However, as fascinating as that conversation is, and I would love to have it, I want to focus on the basics in this conversation. Because, as you and I have discussed, there’s a lot of myths and [mis]understanding about mushrooms and their uses therapeutically, especially as mushrooms get more popular as supplements and we see a proliferation of mushroom coffees and mushrooms used in all of these different contexts.

So, I want to first just chat a little bit about the history of the medicinal use of mushrooms. My background is in Chinese medicine; I know they’ve been used for 7,000 years, if not longer. Some of the earliest medical texts talk about mushrooms and the use of them in [a] medical context. Then I want to go a little deeper into the structure. What is a mushroom? What’s the difference between mushroom and mycelium? What’s happening now in the marketplace with so-called mushroom supplements that actually contain mycelium? Just so we can help people understand what they should be looking for if they’re considering mushrooms therapeutically.

Jeff Chilton:  Absolutely, absolutely.

Chris Kresser:  Because I think that’s the key thing here. If people take away nothing else from this, [if] they understand that, [then] we will have, I think, accomplished something useful, right?

Jeff Chilton:  I totally agree. That’s a subject that we have to cover for sure because everybody is sort of like, “Oh, yeah, mushrooms, they do this, they do that.” But what you’re taking is probably the most important thing of all.

Chris Kresser:  Right. Okay, well, let’s start with just, “Why mushroom[s]?” Why would someone even want to consider using mushrooms therapeutically as a form of medicine? What do we know historically about this?

Jeff Chilton:  Well, there’s a major reason for this, and [it] is what I like to focus on, and that is immunological potentiation. All mushrooms have that ability. It’s just that some have a greater ability to do that than others. And those have been identified as what we call “medicinal mushrooms.” Now I’m kind of using “functional mushrooms” a little more. But there are key species that can do immunological potentiation, and it’s all primarily based around the beta-glucan content of mushrooms. And you can get that whether you are actually eating mushrooms or using them as supplements. But what that means is that these beta-glucans are, as you consume them, basically hitting receptor sites that we have. And that’s the interesting thing to me; we actually have receptor sites for these beta-glucans. So they hit the receptor sites, and then they activate immune cells, whether that’s NK cells, T cells, [or] macrophages. And, in a sense, they will be in the background. Maybe you don’t really need them; maybe you don’t need that. But they’re there, especially if you’re consuming mushrooms in a regular way. And they can essentially help you in so many different ways.

I mean, our immune system, we have certainly learned in the last three years with COVID and all, how important that is. So really, that’s the primary function of mushrooms as I see them. We can go through the specifics of each mushroom, but the basis for all of that [is] the beta-glucans and their activity as an immunological potentiator. That’s why we focus so much on testing beta-glucans and guaranteeing beta-glucans in our products, because, to me, if it doesn’t have beta-glucans, then it’s not actually a mushroom product in that sense.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah, let’s dive into that a little bit more. For those [who] are not familiar, beta-glucan is a unique type of soluble fiber. But it behaves differently, as Jeff said, than most other types of soluble fiber in that it activates all of these receptor sites. And it seems to me that there [are] some interesting connections and functions with beta-glucan. You mentioned their ability to activate receptor sites, and they also seem to have a beneficial impact on the gut microbiota. And we know that the gut microbiome is connected to pretty much every system and tissue in the body now. There’s the gut–brain axis, there’s the gut–skin axis, there’s the gut–lung axis, [and] there’s even the gut–eye axis [and] the gut–mouth axis. So when you start to look at the benefits of mushrooms, it can almost be puzzling because they seem to affect so many different systems in the body. And my theory, which I think there’s some research to support, is that perhaps the beta-glucans’ effect on the gut and the gut flora mediate that impact, to some degree, [of] the mushroom’s ability to affect so many different systems. What do you think about that?

Jeff Chilton:  Well, you know what, I would agree. One of the things about mushrooms is they’re relatively high in protein, 15 to 40 percent. They’re high in carbohydrates. And those carbohydrates, what’s interesting about them [is] they’re non-starch carbohydrates. Mushrooms don’t contain starch. They actually have a small amount of glycogen, like humans do, as their storage carbohydrate. But the carbohydrates they have are slow-acting carbohydrates, like mannitol, trehalose, [those types of] things. And that’s kind of what, in a way, we’re all looking for is low-glycemic-index foods, where you’re not getting this starch, this spike of glucose. It’s very slow acting. And one of the reasons for that is mushrooms are very high in fiber. And a major part of that fiber is the beta-glucan.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m always telling people before you even supplement, put mushrooms into your diet. That is so important. And they have shown in these very large studies in Asia that populations that consume mushrooms live longer than those that don’t. So, for me, number one, start eating mushrooms. I eat mushrooms three or four times a week. Different species. We’ve got more mushroom species in the marketplace than we’ve ever had right now. You can get fresh shiitake. Where you are, you can probably get maitake, possibly lion’s mane.

Chris Kresser:  Lion’s mane I’ve seen.

Jeff Chilton:  Yeah, and oyster mushrooms. I mean, it’s an amazing time for mushrooms. I look at mushrooms as the forgotten food or the missing dietary link. That’s really, in the West, I think, what we lack in our diet. So before you even supplement, eat mushrooms. They also have high amounts of potassium, phosphorus, B vitamins, B1, 2, and 3. Low fat. The fat is mostly non-saturated, it’s linoleic acid. So it’s just a great food. And the funny thing is, Chris, when I went to work at the mushroom farm in 1973, the very big farm, we were growing 2 million pounds of button mushrooms a year, [and] classical nutritionists said mushrooms had no food value. Well, really? The reason they said that is because they’re low in calories, which now we think is a good thing. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. But that was what they said. So it took a long time and a number of scientists doing a lot of studies on the nutritional benefits of mushrooms for that to change. People just looked at them as sort of a garnish, [like] they’re not really a food. Everybody puts them in the vegetable category, right? Because that’s where they sit in the marketplace.

So it’s really taken time for mushrooms to reach the point where people are like, “Okay, yeah.” I mean, you mentioned it earlier, the funny thing is that our customers put mushrooms into everything now. Our mushroom extract, they’ll put it into chocolate, they’ll put it into drinks, you name it. People are very innovative these days, and they’re putting mushrooms into everything, which I think is really interesting. The key thing for me is having the right amount in [there] so you’re not just fairy dusting, because that’s what a lot of companies will do. [They’ll] just put a little bit in so they can say “mushroom” on the label.

Chris Kresser:  I love that term “fairy dusting.” That’s one of the dirty tricks in the supplement business that people do. And I’ve been trying to educate our audience on that for many years, and my patients, as well. Because it’s hard for the average consumer who doesn’t have a medical background. They don’t understand how to evaluate these claims, through no fault of their own. That’s not their training.

Jeff Chilton:  No, not at all. And, look, you get into, for example, [a] natural foods market and you see all the supplements on the shelf. It’s just like, where do you go with that? There [are] 20 different brands of mushroom products there. And you’re just like, “Where? And what?” And of course, the person [who’s] helping you there, who has been educated by one of those companies, will point you right to that product whether it’s good or bad, because they don’t necessarily know, either. They’re just going along with whatever the sales rep has told them.

Chris Kresser:  Exactly, yeah. We’ll get further into that. I want to linger a little bit on beta-glucan and other healing compounds in mushrooms. So, another interesting connection to point out is this field of, [and] this is perhaps the longest word in the English language and definitely one of the longest terms I studied in medicine, psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology. That’s all one word, psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology. It was coined to highlight and recognize the intimate connection between the immune system, the nervous system, the endocrine system, and the brain and nervous system. So going back to what you said about beta-glucan and the primary benefit of mushrooms being beta-glucan, and the primary function of beta-glucan being immune activation, it strikes me that it’s not just activating the immune system in isolation from the rest of the body. It’s also [that] the immune system is communicating with the nervous system and the endocrine system, which, of course, governs hormone production. So that may be another reason why we see such a broad range of benefits with mushrooms.

Jeff Chilton:  Yeah. A lot of people call them adaptogens, and, in that sense, you could probably describe them that way. When you look at health, Chris, I like to think of it, and this is [the] Chinese way, too, [as balance]. If you have [an] illness, you’re out of balance. How do we bring you back into balance? That’s the whole idea with an adaptogenic plant or mushroom. I just think the whole Chinese philosophy is so sophisticated, and they’ve had so many thousands of years to perfect it. I just love all that. I’m reading a book right now [on] Taoism, and it just resonates with me so much. And, look, I don’t really understand [Traditional Chinese Medicine] (TCM). I’m not a practitioner. I have friends [who] are into TCM. That’s sort of an area, for me, that I learned a little bit about. But my focus has always been on growing the mushrooms, producing them in a way that is active and can be real medicine, if you want to say that. But I also am totally into the idea that food is medicine, and that’s our foundation.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely.

Jeff Chilton:  With a poor foundation, nothing, no supplement is going to help you out of that or your lifestyle. And that’s what I love about mushrooms. They’re food. So put them into your diet, again, because that’s Functional Medicine right there.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I want to talk a little bit more about some of the other compounds in mushrooms before we dive into the structure of what a mushroom actually is. And these are the terpenes [and] triterpenoids. There are now some amino acids that are getting attention like L-ergothioneine, which is prevalent in some mushrooms. What’s your sense of these compounds that are not beta-glucans but have been more recently identified? And certainly, like in the study of another powerful plant medicine, cannabis, it’s pretty well recognized. The terpenes and the different terpene profiles in different strains of cannabis plants may be at least partially responsible for their health benefits and the varying effects that those different strains have. Do you think something similar is going on with mushrooms, where the terpene profile is impacting their health effects?

Jeff Chilton:  Oh yes, especially [the] reishi mushroom. What sets [it] apart from everything else is, and this is interesting, because we analyze and we measure, we discovered that reishi and turkey tail have the highest level of beta-glucans. They have 50 percent beta-glucan. And the thing about reishi, what sets it apart from all the other mushrooms, is it has a very high level of triterpenoids. And these triterpenoids [are] bitter, they act as blood purifiers, [and] they help the liver function. There’s also other evidence of them in terms of cancer systems having some effect there, as well. But they’re very, very important. And that’s why I think reishi has been so highly revered in China. I was at a derma conference in China in the 1990s, and there was a TCM doctor there. I was talking to him about the reishi, and he said it was the most important herb that he uses for the liver. And he used as much as 30 grams as a dose of dried mushrooms in whatever extracted form that he might have used. But up to 30 grams of it for his patients, in terms of any sort of serious liver dysfunction.

The other mushroom that has levels of triterpenes [is] turkey tail. Also, chaga has triterpenoids. And it’s interesting, these triterpenes are primarily in the polypores. Those are mushrooms that do not have gills; they have pores on the underside. They are mostly inedible because they are [as] hard as wood. They grow off of wood. I remember walking around Natural Foods Expo in Los Angeles in the early ‘90s with a reishi mushroom in my hand, and I would say, “Hey, do you know anything about mushrooms?” And people [would] look at that thing, and they [would] pick it up and [say], “Well, is this real? Did you just carve this or something?” I mean, literally nobody had any idea of what was going on there. So, yes, the triterpenes are very important, and that, to me, considering that these specific mushrooms like turkey tail or reishi are so highly revered and so well used, is one of the reasons. What’s interesting is that reishi was one of the first mushrooms that Nammex, my company, analyzed in the ‘90s because at that time, it was like, “Okay, these are compounds that we can actually get to.” I had a project at the University of British Columbia where we extracted five different triterpenoids from reishi mushroom, the important ones, to give us pure standards, and we were actually measuring the triterpenoids in our reishi extracts back in the ‘90s. We set a standard for reishi back [then], which was 4 percent triterpenoids and, at the time, 12 and a half percent polysaccharide, which was kind of interesting. And that’s a whole other story, polysaccharide. Beta-glucans are polysaccharides, but polysaccharides are not necessarily beta-glucans. So you have to be careful there. But yeah, the triterpenoids are super important.

Chris Kresser:  Cool. I’m fascinated by that. For those [who] are listening, terpenes, if you’re not familiar with them, you actually are, if you’ve ever smelled lavender, or, for example, a cannabis plant. The aroma that is produced by that is largely due to the terpene profiles.

Jeff Chilton:  Or the pitch that’s coming out of those conifers in our part of the world.

Chris Kresser:  Right, right. So I want to talk a little bit about ergothioneine. Because this one’s pretty interesting. You mentioned before how we actually have receptors for beta-glucan. And I find that fascinating because it suggests that mushrooms have played a pretty important role from an ancestral perspective. We’ve evolved receptors to them, which, the body is nothing if not efficient when it comes to evolution. So we would not have receptors for something preserved for this long if they didn’t play some kind of very important role.

Jeff Chilton:  Agreed.

Chris Kresser:  And with ergothioneine, I think ergothioneine was initially thought not to have any important physiological functions. But then scientists discovered a specialized transporter called the ergo[thioneine] transporter, or ETT, that absorbs [it] and moves it right into our cells. And I know that Dr. Bruce Ames has actually argued that ergothioneine should be classified as a vitamin for this reason. It’s that important.

Jeff Chilton:  Yes, I know. There are a lot of people saying that now. I think I’d have to agree. And the interesting thing about ergothioneine is that they found it in specific parts of our body that are known for being under high oxidative stress. They’ve found it in the kidneys, the liver, [and] our semen, interestingly enough. But the point is that we don’t produce it. We have to get it externally. And what’s fascinating is [that] mushrooms have some of the highest levels of ergothioneine. I’ve looked at all the different species, and we do ergothioneine tests on every single lot that we produce of our mushroom products. There’s one particular mushroom out there that we’ve identified that has the highest levels of ergothioneine of all mushrooms. It’s called the golden oyster mushroom. And we are now growing that. We’ve been growing it for a number of years, and we’ve been analyzing it, and we’re bringing it to the market, ergothioneine, as a mushroom powder, nothing more.

And to me, I love this, Chris. It’s like, if I can bring a compound like that and it’s just from the mushroom alone, nothing else, there’s no processing, it’s just from this mushroom species, to me, that is so exciting. But the big issue, of course, is okay, we’ve got it in there. Now, what do we have to do? Do we know it’s going to be there the same every time? Well, one of the things you have to do is stability studies. How long is it going to last? So that takes time, but we are introducing that product this fall as a new product in our product line. And to me, ergothioneine is just one of those compounds that, for whatever reason, the natural products industry just hasn’t quite embraced. People have been trying to introduce it since about 2012, and it’s been out there, But there’s just not been enough talk about it. And now, I think it’s being studied, really studied deeply, and I suspect [that] as they continue, I didn’t even know what you were talking about, that there’s actually a transporter of that. I haven’t looked at it for a while. So I didn’t even know that. I mean, the main scientist [who’s] working with this is Dr. Holloway out in Singapore, and he’s published so much information. The other [person who’s] really been promoting it a lot has been Dr. Beelman at Penn State University. He’s published a lot of stuff, as well. So I think its time has come, and we’re going to be putting it out there. And the funny thing is, we’re doing it at the same time that we’re bringing out a mushroom powder that has high levels of vitamin D. And look, it’s just a mushroom powder. I don’t know if you’ve looked into the way they process vitamin D, whether it’s D2 from yeast or D3 from lanolin. The processing is ugly.

Chris Kresser:  I mean, there are better and worse ways that happens, of course. As a supplement industry, you’ve got to know where the bodies are buried, basically. I just want to mention for folks some of the other mushrooms that are higher in ergothioneine. Lion’s mane is quite close to, [in] my understanding, oyster and shiitake. And the ones that are low are reishi and turkey tail. So reishi and turkey tail are super high in beta-glucan, right? And also in terpenes, but low in ergothioneine. Then you have shiitake and lion’s mane, which are lower in beta-glucan, not low, but lower on a relative basis, and then higher in ergothioneine. So it’s interesting how they all combine in a formula.

I mean, it’s pretty rare in TCM that compounds are used singly. They sometimes are, but they’re often combined in formulas. And I think what we’re talking about now provides some insight into why that can be useful and helpful. You have these complementary effects, where you have mushrooms that are high in some beneficial compounds, lower in others, and then other mushrooms that are higher in those compounds that the others in the formula are lower in, and there’s probably even synergistic effects that we don’t fully understand when they come together.

Jeff Chilton:  I think that’s a good point. Yeah, absolutely a good point. And look, just to be clear, since we have been analyzing all of our species, and we have about 10 different species that we[’ve sold] for probably five years, we have five years’ worth of data. And not just our extracts, but the mushrooms themselves [that] we have analyzed. So we know the levels that should be in there. This golden oyster, just to give you an idea, comes in max at somewhere around 7 milligrams per gram. Shiitake is one of the higher ones, but it’s 2 milligrams per gram. So significantly lower than that. And again, this golden oyster is not like a normal oyster mushroom. A normal oyster mushroom will be down lower than that. This one is just, for whatever reason, and this is one of the things that we have to always be looking at within the different species, is [the] fact [that] there [are] some significant differences in the compounds that [it] manufacture[s].

And to take it a level deeper, not just that, but within the species itself, a mushroom grown in Oregon versus a mushroom grown in California can also exhibit very significant differences in the compounds that it produces. So what we always have to be thinking about, since we cultivate mushrooms, we don’t wildcraft them, is that [the] cultivars we’re using [are] one[s] that produce the highest levels of these active compounds. That’s what we’re looking for. And I saw that in 2001 in a paper that was presented by a scientist in Taiwan. He had 12 different cultivars of reishi mushroom, and it went from 1 percent to 12 percent of triterpenoids.

Mushrooms have been touted for centuries for their medicinal benefits, and they’re more popular than ever with consumers—from capsules and powders to teas, coffees, chocolates, and extracts. But what are you actually getting when you purchase these products? Tune in to this episode of Revolution Health Radio to better understand what you are taking, the potential benefits, and how to determine the quality of the ingredients. #chriskresser #mushrooms

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, really fascinating. We could linger forever here. I want to get on to, what is a mushroom? What is mycelium? What is fungi overall? And really just help people understand these basic but often misunderstood factors into mushroom medicine.

Jeff Chilton:  Well, it’s interesting because, as a mushroom grower, it’s like, “Okay, give me the seeds, and then I’ll start to grow my mushrooms. Uh oh, mushrooms don’t have seeds. What do I use to start my mushroom crop?” Well, the whole thing starts from spores. NFCs, they have spores. When these spores germinate, they germinate into a very fine, thread-like filament. When multiple filaments come together and fuse, those filaments will form a network. That network is called mycelium. Mycelium, interesting[ly] enough, is the actual body of this organism. But the mycelium we normally never see because it’s underground. It’s embedded in wood. So we don’t normally think much about the mycelium when conditions are right, like for us in the fall. It rains, [and] the temperature goes down. Mushrooms need high humidity to grow. They don’t like dry conditions. So, the mushroom forms—it starts at a small little hyphal knot, then a primordia, then it moves through the different stages to where it becomes a mature mushroom. On the underside are gills, or in some cases, pores. That’s where the spores are produced. Now we have a completion of this life cycle.

The important thing to understand here is that, with supplements, we want to know what the plant part is because that makes a big difference in terms of what the compounds are in that particular plant. Is it [a] root? Is it [a] leaf? Is it [a] flower? In this case, with this fungus, it’s like we’ve got three parts. We’ve got a spore, which is the reproductive structure, we’ve got mycelium, which is the vegetative structure, the body, and then we have the mushroom, which is the fruit body. So we have these three plant parts, and each one of those has been used for medicinal purposes. Reishi spores are now used in China. I’m not sure I agree with that use, but it’s become very popular. But mycelium in China is grown in huge tanks of liquid, and they can grow pure mycelium. Mushrooms, as you know, have been used in their mushroom form for thousands of years. So those are the three major things. Right now, of course, when you get out [in] the marketplace, it’s either mushroom or it could be mycelium. But that’s where some of the issues come in, is that some people will grow out the mycelium on sterilized grain. After 30 to 50 days, they’ll harvest that, all of it—grain, mycelium, and all—they’ll dry it, they’ll grind it to a powder, and then they will sell it with the grain. And the issue is that it’s mostly grain with small amounts of mycelium. And the worst part about it is that they often will not tell you that. And on that front panel, they’ll have a picture of a mushroom, and they’ll say “reishi mushroom” [or] “shiitake mushroom,” when in fact what they’re giving you is mostly grain starch. Again, mushrooms don’t have any starch. And why would you want grain? You’re looking for a mushroom product. But here are all of these, what we call myceliated grain.

And for those people who sort of want to get a picture of that, think of tempeh. You’re familiar with tempeh, I’m sure. Well, tempeh is cooked soybeans with fungal mycelium grown on it. So if you’re eating tempeh, you’re eating fungal mycelium. Tempeh is a food. But most of that tempeh, if you’re slicing into it, you’ll see it’s mostly soybean. And this is what they’re selling and calling mushroom, and they’re making all sorts of claims for it. Even though it’s mostly starch, they’re claiming, “Oh, it’s got the beta-glucan. It’s got all the compounds that you’re looking for from a mushroom.” It doesn’t.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. So what are some of the biggest differences between mycelium and real mushrooms? I imagine the beta-glucan content will differ, [and] the terpene profile will be different. You mentioned that the mycelium will often contain significant amounts of starch like alpha-glucan or other starch, rather than beta-glucan, which is what we know activates or potentiates the immune system. Are those the primary differences? And what kinds of differences do you expect to see in the content of those active compounds?

Jeff Chilton:  Well, you know what? Mycelium is actually a relatively simple structure. What it does is secretes enzymes that will break down organic matter. It’s very important for recycling organic matter. But it’s a simple structure. When you grow it on its own and you analyze it, you’ll find a couple of things. One, it’s absolutely lower in beta-glucans. And number two, for example, with reishi, mycelium has [a] very, very small [amount] to next to no triterpenoids. And they don’t have the major triterpenoids. They have a couple [of] other relatively obscure triterpenoids in very, very small quantities. So if you were to take reishi mycelium, if it was pure, and just taste it, it would not have any of those bitter compounds that we’re used to in a reishi mushroom. Really, when we analyze any of these other species, it’s pretty much the same. The point really is that in China, when they grow mycelium in large tanks, it’s pure, 100 percent mycelium. It’s still not as good as the mushroom, but at least it’s pure mycelium. With these products that are manufactured in the United States, you are getting mostly grain starch. And we know that because we’ve tested these products for their beta-glucans [and] for their alpha-glucans, which are the starches. We’ve tested them for ergosterol. Ergosterol is really interesting. The grain industry uses the ergosterol test on stored grain because what you’re worried about when your grain is in the silos and stored is, is there a fungus in there? Is there Aspergillus, which is producing aflatoxins? God, they are fearful of that. So they’re testing for the presence of ergosterol as an indicator of fungal presence.

So ergosterol is a great test that we use, and these products have about a tenth of the ergosterol that a mushroom has. We’re also testing them for ergothioneine, which they have absolutely no ergothioneine in them. So they really lack all the compounds. And again, the reason is simply that there’s not a lot of mycelium in those products. There’s not a lot of fungal tissue, and it’s mostly grain, because you cannot separate that grain it’s growing on from the mycelium.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s a really important distinction and I think one that people don’t really understand.

Why do people use mycelium? Someone might be listening to this and thinking, “Okay, if we know that real mushrooms are more beneficial, that’s what traditional cultures have used for thousands of years, that’s what most scientific studies that have elucidated the benefits of mushrooms have used, why are people growing and selling mycelium and calling it mushrooms?”

Jeff Chilton:  Well, it’s actually pretty simple. I can grow mushrooms in the United States, and I can sell them fresh and I can make a profit. I can make a business out of it. There [are] tons of mushroom businesses out there selling fresh mushrooms. Now, as an example, if I get $5 a pound for my fresh mushrooms from whoever wants to buy it, great. Mushrooms are 90 percent water. We use dried powders in the supplement industry. So you have to dry that out. Now, that $5 for that pound of mushrooms, dried out, now you have to get $50 for that same pound. The economics simply don’t work. So what they’ve done, and this is kind of the interesting part, is that in terms of making mushroom spawn, again, we’re using live mycelium as what we use to grow mushrooms, in terms of making that live mycelium, you have to put it on a carrier material. And in the ‘30s, they figured out, ”Hey, if we put that live mycelium on grain, well, geez, a gallon jar of grain will have [3,000] [or] 4,000 different kernels.” Every single one of those kernels with mycelium on it acts like a seed. So you can take those kernels and you can spread them throughout your substrate, and it will grow very quickly.

So what they’ve done is taken this process of manufacturing mushroom spawn, which is mycelium grown on grain and which is very cheap to produce. All you do is sterilize grain, inoculate it in a lab, it grows out, you dry it, you grind it, [and] you sell it. Simple mushroom growing. God, mushroom growing is not easy. I like to tell people every mushroom you’ve ever eaten has been harvested by hand. Can you imagine every mushroom you’re picking by hand? That’s the bottleneck in mushroom growing. So, the economics do not work. But growing mycelium on grain, which should be just grain spawn used to inoculate a subject to grow mushrooms, they just take that, dry it, grind it to a powder, and sell it. And the worst part about it, Chris, is they actually call it mushroom.

Chris Kresser:  Right. So let’s talk about that. I’ve, of course, been witness to a peripheral development with botanical medicine over many years, watching new guidance be issued by the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] (FDA) and consumer awareness increasing about herbs and botanicals. It seems to me, and I think you and Nammex have spoken about this at length, that we’re in a kind of Wild West phase with mushrooms, where the FDA has not provided similar guidance. There’s nothing stopping a company that’s selling mycelium from calling it mushrooms. And this is really responsible for the confusion in the marketplace, that there are no guidelines or restrictions on what mushroom actually means on a supplement label.

Jeff Chilton:  That’s right. And what’s interesting about that is that [the] FDA does have a compliance document from 1976, which says [that] you cannot call a product with mycelium [mushroom] or insinuate that it is mushroom. That’s an actual FDA compliance document. But the issue is that [the] FDA is more concerned about, did this product cause damage? Did it kill anybody? Is that meat full of [Escherichia] coli? [That] is where they’re focused. They’re not focused on something like this. But the point is that the industry has gotten too big. You have to come in and set some guidelines here. We just produced a citizen petition and submitted it to [the] FDA that said, “You have to step in, and you have to define the terminology, and we have to be specific about what’s being sold here.” Because as this moves and goes forward and grows, more companies get in and start to sell these products. There’s a new company that just got into this business, selling mycelium on a grain. Brand new, big factory, amazing company. And if you go to their website, all they talk about, Chris, is “Mushroom, mushroom, mushroom. Look at [how] we’re growing our mushroom.” It’s like, I’m looking at what you’re growing, [and] I see a bag of grain. And you’re saying that’s a mushroom. And that’s what will continue to happen unless this gets stopped early on. Go ahead and sell your product. I don’t care. But label it properly. That’s the issue. Label it properly. You’re creating tremendous confusion in the marketplace. And not only that, Chris, can you imagine somebody wanting a mushroom product and they’re buying a product, and it turns out to be mostly starch? That is, in my opinion, I consider that to be pure adulteration, pure and simple. That’s what’s going on.

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Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah. And I’m glad to see some movement here. It seems that I’m seeing more articles [and] podcasts. I know you’re out there beating this drum [along with] several other people. So it’s changing. But I think this is an area where regulation can be helpful and important. I mean, we do it with food. We do it with lots of other medicinal compounds. It just makes sense to me that this will eventually happen with mushrooms so that people can see what they’re getting clearly. Especially because, as you’ve established, they’re not identical. They’re not interchangeable from a health perspective.

Jeff Chilton:  Well, yeah. It’s like, people are sort of like, “Well, it’s mushroom or mycelium.” It’s not mushroom or mycelium. It’s mushroom, or this mycelium growing on grain.

Chris Kresser:  Plus the substrate.

Jeff Chilton:  Which is nothing but starch. And that’s really the issue here. If you want to sell your mycelium on grain, fine; label it properly. Let people know what you’re selling. And the interesting part is [that] those companies will never measure anything in their products. They do not measure beta-glucans because there are none. They don’t measure ergothioneine, ergosterol, [or] triterpenoids. They do not do that. They’ll say, “We have those in there.” But they won’t show you that they’ve actually measured for them.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s super important. I want to talk a little bit more about what’s important in terms of sourcing mushrooms. Obviously, since they’re a food and they’re grown, the question of pesticides and herbicides and other chemicals is very important. And I know that Nammex sources organic mushrooms from China. Now, when people hear China, they freak out. And in some cases, this is justified. I mean, there have [certainly] been lots of situations where it’s been discovered that food products or other, I mean, coming from in my industry, which is medicinal herbs and botanicals, there are some very shady herbal products that come out of China that are contaminated with heavy metals and lots of other stuff. I spent many years educating my patients about that, and [I’m] certainly not saying don’t buy anything that comes out of China because at the same time, there are also extremely high-quality herbal and botanical products coming out of China. And, of course, China’s a very, very big country with a lot going on. It’s ridiculous to apply [any] kind of monolithic heuristic to the entire country as a whole. But talk a little bit about, first of all, why it’s important to source organic mushrooms. And, second of all, your long-standing involvement in China. I think you were instrumental in setting up the first organic mushroom farm, or one of the first certified organic mushroom farms there, and what you’ve learned over the years about sourcing organic mushrooms from China.

Jeff Chilton:  Well, look, whether it’s grown in China or anywhere else, we all need to be vigilant about what’s in the products that we consume. I mean, [the] United States and Canada pour millions of tons of chemicals on all of our food. So, really, it’s not necessarily where it’s grown. It is where it’s grown, but it’s not the countries, so to speak. And Nammex was formed in 1989. I’ve been organically certified since 1992. I traveled all through China in the ‘90s because I realized I cannot grow mushrooms in North America economically enough to sell the supplements. I first went to China in 1989, [and] I traveled through the ‘90s. In 1997, I took [the Organic Crop Improvement Association] (OCIA), one of the largest organic certifiers in the [United States], with me. We had the very first organic certification workshop for mushrooms in China, [in] 1997. We started getting organically certified mushrooms in about 2000. And all of those products are certified by European certifiers, whether it was German or French certifiers. They come in and they visit the farms.

Now, the point is, and a lot of people say, “Oh, organic.” Well, yeah, I totally get it because there’s a drift. You never really know. So, every single batch that we produce of our products, we’re testing it for heavy metals. You can’t literally sell, I mean, as a raw material, we can’t sell to another company without the heavy metals meeting the [specifications]. It’s the same with pesticides. We have to test for a whole raft of different pesticides. It’s [United States Pharmacopeia] 561 that we have to adhere to. So we test for pesticides. We do a full panel of micros on it, every one. Salmonella, E. coli, all of the different microbes that you would be looking for. We do that before the product even comes out of China. And these are tested over there by international labs. China’s got all the standard international labs over there. So it’s tested there, then it comes to us, to our [United States] warehouse. We get a sample, [and] it gets tested again. So we’re testing every single product two times to make sure it meets the standards. It’s interesting because a lot of people think, “Oh, yeah, the supplement industry is not regulated.” Well, it is highly regulated. It’s just that there are some companies out there that will skirt around it and so on. But no, it’s highly regulated. We meet those standards. And as a raw material supplier, most bigger companies that purchase from us, the first thing they do is they qualify us. It takes a while for them to qualify us.

And if they do their proper due diligence, and we really want them to do this, they will do their own testing. A lot of companies don’t. But, do your own testing. We’ll even send them to labs, for example, that run beta-glucan tests or ergosterol or something like that. They[’ve] got labs where they can do [testing for] heavy metals or pesticides [and] all that. We encourage that. And I think last year, our lab expenditure was somewhere around $300,000. We do a little bit of testing in-house. We will test for the microbiological aspect. But we can’t do heavy metals [or] pesticides. That takes a much more expensive machine. So we send it all out to third-party labs. It’s super important to me. All our mushrooms are grown back in the mountains. Beautiful areas far away from the [cities]. God, can you imagine consuming anything that’s grown within, I don’t know, 10 miles of some of these petrochemical factories or something like that? I like to say, “Well, do you want to eat vegetables grown down there on the Gulf Coast of the United States, [in] Louisiana, Texas, those areas?” No, of course you don’t. So that’s the important part, and we pay very, very close attention to that. Because we want our products to meet all of those standards. It’s super important.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, so important, and really not often happening. So Jeff, thank you so much for this interview. It’s been amazing. We’ve learned a lot, and I just want people who are watching and listening [to know that] Nammex is our supplier for our Bio-Avail Myco [product] from Adapt Naturals. I did a ton of research, as everybody knows I do with this [type] of thing. And Nammex was, by far, I felt, the best option in terms of providing the highest-quality raw material. Real mushrooms, organic, grown on natural substrates instead of in a lab on purified cereal grains. Or, from what I understand in some cases, even on sawdust and other materials that can be worse than purified grains. And I’ve been using mushrooms for so long [and] I have such deep respect for their potency and power as medicines and functional foods, if you will, that when I created a product, I knew that I wanted it to be exactly what we know it can be when you use the highest-quality raw materials.

So, Jeff, thank you for being such an advocate and pioneer in this space. I really appreciate your contribution and everything you’ve done for this field. And [I] would definitely love to have you back in the future to talk a little bit more about another type of mushroom medicine, psilocybin, and some of the other compounds in these potent plant medicines and what we’re learning about them. We’ll save that for another episode.

Jeff Chilton:  Yeah, that fits right into my philosophy, which is [that] I’m kind of going back to the future, Chris.

Chris Kresser:  Perfect. Yeah. I mean, it’s cyclical, isn’t it?

Jeff Chilton:  It is.

Chris Kresser:  We live in these cycles. We tend to think it’s linear, but we discover, we rediscover, we iterate, we learn, we revise, and hopefully, our knowledge and awareness grows over time.

Jeff Chilton:  Yeah, yeah. And I really appreciate talking to you. It’s been fun. I certainly look forward to another conversation because it’s a very, very big area, and there [are] so many different paths to take.

Chris Kresser:  Great. Well, thanks, everyone, for listening. Keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion. We’ll see you next time

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