During the last year or so I’ve been traveling in 21 countries and drinking our Instant Beverages in the company of hundreds and again hundreds of people. When people ask me what are those funny looking sachets, it almost always causes chuckles and giggles when my answer is that I’m drinking mushrooms. It’s even more powerful way to make people smile than me wearing FiveFingers shoes about 4 years ago in rural Asia, which I can also guarantee caused quite the belly laugh among the locals :)
Ever since the launch of our Instants I’ve been interviewed in several medias (radio, magazines, and latest on Kate Magic’s health food community), I’ve written guest blog posts, and given public speeches about mushrooms. The common story is pretty much the same everywhere; most people still think that the word “mushroom” is equal to few culinary mushrooms (e.g. the button mushroom) or some random hallucinogenic mushrooms (ironically they can’t name any). It’s also very common that people come to me and say things like “isn’t all mushrooms in the world carcinogenic” or that “all mushrooms cause fungal diseases”. To me this is like saying all animals are bad because horses kill 20 people each year (true story!) or that all plants are bad because hops (hence also all beer) have estrogenic effects that lead to feminization of the male body. It’s a massive generalization.
Despite all of this ranting, I’ve never written about how amazing mushrooms/fungi are to this blog. So here are 7 interesting aspects about mushrooms that I’ve collected for you to showcase why our level of appreciation towards fungi is so high.
1. Mushrooms are surprisingly close to humans
Mushrooms and mammals separated from each others around 460 million years ago, but we still share 30% or more of the same genes, making us far more closer to mushrooms than to bacteria or plants. Just like us humans, mushrooms use oxygen and expel CO2. The bad news is that because of this DNA similarity, the same pathogens that hit fungi usually affect us like is the case of mycoses like candida (by the way plant’s pathogenic fungi are also responsible for 70% of all known plant diseases). The good news is that the same defense mechanisms of fungi can also help us when we consume them hence the whole genre of medicinal mushrooms.
2. Mushrooms are some of the oldest organisms alive
The largest living organism on the Planet Earth is a fungus discovered only a little over 10 years ago in Eastern Oregon’s conifer forest. This Armillaria solidipes fungi (formerly known as Prince…I mean Armillaria ostoyae) cover the size of about 20,000 basketball courts (8.4 km²) and weighs more than the great Blue Whale. It also could be the oldest living organism on Earth with an estimated age of 2400 years. Fungi in general are not as old as bacteria (which are about 3.5 billion years old) but with roughly 460 to 455 million years of existence support the thesis that that fungi may have played an essential role in the colonization of land by the first plants (which are approximately 425 million years old).
Photo credit: Alan Rockefeller (Armillaria ostoyae)
3. Mushrooms are an own kingdom
In biology fungi are classified as an own kingdom along with 4-5 others kingdoms such Animalia, Plantae, Chromista, Protozoa, and Bacteria. So being on the same “level” as plants is already in indicator that fungi play a massive role in biology. British mycologist Dr. David L. Hawksworth from the International Mycological Association has made a conservative estimate that there are at least 1.5 million species of fungi on earth (using a hypothesis that there are 6x the amount of fungi to every plant). This kingdom is still vastly unknown to us humans. Depending on the source we have discovered only 99,000 species of fungi, and new species are found at the rate of 1200 per year. With this pace it will take more than 1100 years to catalog and describe all remaining fungi. Sadly, many of these fungi are very likely to become extinct before they are ever discovered.
4. Mushroom are a basis of many drugs
Currently we have identified that roughly 300-400 species of fungi have medicinal properties. According to experts at least 40% of our drugs utilize directly or indirectly mushrooms. Herbalist Robert Rogers estimates that a total of 126 medicinal functions are thought to be produced by medicinal mushrooms. Judging by these figures it is not surprising to hear that during the last decade there has been over 100,000 studies on medicinal mushrooms in Asia alone. The most famous “mushroom drug” is mold fungus based penicillin. After 1928, when Dr. Alexander Fleming “found” it, it has said to save tens of millions of people (some say even over 200 million lives but who really knows for sure?). Another major mushroom drug innovation started 25 years ago when the Japanese researcher Tetsuro Fujita came up with the idea to use Ophiocordyceps sinensis against multiple sclerosis, a very common and “incurable” autoimmune disease. Based on Fujita’s studies Swiss drug company Novartis launched Gilenya. It’s a MS disease drug made from Myriocin originally derived from Isaria sinclairii, the anamorph of Cordyceps sinclairii. The Myriocin is synthesized for drug production as usual. It is said that this drug will generate up to US$5 billion a year in global sales making it soon the TOP 10 best selling drug of all time. The cost of treatment with Gilenya is $3000 per month. FSF sells Instant Cordyceps, that is made from natural cordyceps and even if used daily would not cost more than $500 a year. Just saying.
Photo: Ophiocordyceps sinensis
5. Mushrooms are a serious food business
Estimates made in 2004 already suspected that the global mushroom business is a whopping US$40 billion, which is almost the size of the global coffee business. Only 25 years ago this same production was 150x smaller. Globally there are at least 2000 varieties of edible mushrooms, and this production is clearly led by China. According to the Chinese Association of Edible Fungi, they produce 8 million tons each year, which is about 70% of the global production. Most of the production stays in China, which is the world’s largest mushroom market and a country where many meat eaters are substituting their old habits with ‘shrooms. The actual mushroom export from China is less than 5% of its total domestic production. With these numbers it’s not also striking to hear that 35 million Chinese work in the mushroom industry. Tibet is the only country that has more fungal income per capita in the world over China. Rare mushrooms like Ophiocordyceps sinensis (which I sell now through FSF) and Tricholoma matsutake (which I started my mushroom business in the dim and distant) can both cost several thousands of dollars per kilo. On the other extreme, fungi can also be used to make very economical meals. For example UK based brand of meat imitating controversial mycoprotein called Quorn is one of them. In the 1950′s people thought that by the 1980’s there would be a massive world hunger so for the upcoming protein shortage scientist invented this protein product made from a mold fungus (Fusarium venenatum). Now this cheap meat replacement is sold in 11 countries with annual sales of over US$ 140 million. In the UK alone people eat an unbelievable 500,000 Quorn based meals everyday.
Photo credit: Jan Ainala (Quorn fillets – fried, defrosted and frozen)
6. Mushrooms are faster, stronger, larger…
If organism would have Olympic games, mushrooms would score more medals than China. In high jump even Javier Sotomayor at his best couldn’t compete with fungus that ejects its spores with more than 20,000 G’s of force! Even top trained humans can barely stand 12 G’s of force before passing out. At bodybuilding Ronnie Coleman would look like a Kenyan marathon runner next to the prehistoric reproductive fungal structures that were eight meters high and one meter wide. As a comparison plants at that time were at best equally high as the mushrooms were wide. And finally in the sport of ultra masculinity, Rocco Siffredi & Co. have to stand in awe to Calvatia gigantea that can produce 20 trillion spores in its lifetime. If each spore would grow into another full maturity mushroom, those 20 trillion puffballs would equal a mass of 3x greater than the Sun.
Photo credit: Hans Hillewaert (Calvatia gigantea)
7. Mushrooms can save the world in many ways
Fungi are known as extremophiles, which basically means they can live everywhere from the Sahara Deserts to the Arctic. Besides being able to break down oil – which is impressive by itself – fungi can also break down extremely toxic chemical weapons of mass destruction and nerve agents like Soman, Sarin, and VX. With melanin pigments fungi can feed itself purely on ionizing radiation and maybe because of this fact there has been fungi sightings in both spacecrafts as well as nuclear waste zones (e.g. at the reactor core of Chernobyl). Fungi are also used to remove pollutants in the field of bioremediation. They also help plants in thriving. Over 95% of all plantae have mushroom partners (mycorrhizal and endophytic symbionts), which help the plant to gather water, minerals, and other nutrients about 1,000x better than it could get on its own. This is just a preview to all the possibilities that fungi include. World’s leading mushroom expert Paul Stamets shares his 6 ways in this video.
Disclaimer: I’m not saying that mushrooms are better than plants or animals, but along bacteria they have definitely suffered from biological racism (i.e. mycophobia) and have not gotten enough appreciation. We at FSF truly believe that no matter what diet do you prefer (Paleo, 80/10/10, gluten-free, half-day fasting, Zone, Hollywood, bear diet, Master Cleanse, DASH….), you will get more bang for your buck by introducing a few top mushrooms (and some good bacteria) to your diet compared to endlessly fine tuning of your macronutrient ratio or fighting with others on how much animal-based products a human is naturally designed to eat. Peace!