Mushrooms are iconic. They’ve been finding their way into people’s hearts and minds through wellness supplements, foraging hobbies, modern art, ancient medicine, and more for thousands of years. But mushrooms are more than meets the eye. In fact, the largest part of the mushroom, the mushroom mycelium, is actually hidden beneath the surface.
Despite staying out of the limelight, mycelium is incredibly important, both for the mushroom and for its entire surrounding ecosystem. Mycelial functions are incredibly advanced, surpassing what any plant or animal can do on its own. It is, of course, a fungus–an intelligent organism that grows, eats, and lives, all beneath the forest floor.
So, how can we harvest the power of the mycelium and use it to our advantage? In other words, what can mushroom mycelium do for us? More than you may think. Here’s what you need to know:
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Mycelium is the part of the mushroom that grows beneath the surface to help anchor and feed the mushroom.
Mycelium is sometimes used in mushroom supplements, but these supplements are not as pure and potent as those made from mushroom fruiting bodies.
Mycelium can be used in many other ways, like for making eco-friendly foods, textiles, and building supplies.
What Is Mushroom Mycelium?
The mycelium is a crucial part of the mushroom growth cycle. It’s the part of the mushroom that grows beneath the surface. Most people would relate it to the root of any plant, but mushrooms are not plants, and mycelium is much more complex than a plant root system.
The mushroom mycelium is a system of filaments called hyphae that sprout from mushroom spores. Overtime, it grows into a dense mass that is inseparable from the growing medium.
Much like a root system, the mycelium helps keep the mushroom anchored and provides the mushrooms with nutrients.
Unlike a root system, though, the mycelia releases enzymes that break down food sources, like decaying plant matter and animal waste, into nutrients that the mushroom can absorb. This is because mushrooms are heterotrophs, which means they rely on surrounding food sources for their nutrients. This is one thing that separates mushrooms from plants, which are autotrophic, meaning they can create their own food.
Mycelium is sometimes used to produce products labeled as “mushroom supplements,” but it's important to understand that these products may include no mushrooms at all. In fact, they may have virtually no benefit when compared to actual mushroom supplements, hence the infamous "mycelium vs fruiting body" debate.
Mycelium may, however, be useful for other applications, which we will discuss below. First, let’s dig into more about how the mushroom mycelium functions to help sustain fungus life.
Mushroom Mycelium Function for Mushroom Life Cycle
Mushrooms are essential to the ecosystem, maybe even more so than any one plant or animal, all thanks to the complex functions of the mycelium. Like other plants and animals, mycelium helps to recycle nutrients throughout the ecosystem by decomposing organic matter. This can help feed the soil and surrounding plants, but that’s not where mycelial function ends.
The mycelium expands in a dense web beneath the forest floors and intertwines with the roots of other plants and tree roots to form what’s called a “symbiotic ecosystem.” The mycelium is a cell-signaling network that functions similarly to the human nervous system, and it helps plants signal to each other from across the forest when they are in need of nutrients.
Then, the mycelium helps to deliver those nutrients to the plants, especially those that are less readily available at the soil’s surface. In exchange, the mycelium gets carbohydrates from the plants that help to sustain the mushroom’s life.
Mycelium can grow to be very large and can connect large ecosystems together to create this symbiotic environment. In fact, the largest known organism on Earth today is a honey mushroom mycelium that covers 2.5 square miles. All in all, mycelium is incredibly useful, both for the natural ecosystems of the world and for many practical societal uses.
The Drawbacks of Mycelium in Supplements
Before we dig into all the ways that the mushroom mycelium can be used, we want to touch on one way that it is most commonly used that isn’t so useful. We mentioned that mushroom mycelium is often used in mushroom supplements, which are typically sold as wellness supplements designed to reap the many benefits associated with functional mushrooms.
However, mycelium supplements are a sort of cop-out for manufacturers, although they will often frame it as though mycelium supplements are superior. Here’s why they aren’t:
When commercially farmed mushroom mycelium is grown, it's grown on blocks of substrate, usually a grain like oats or rice. We mentioned earlier that mycelium is impossible to separate from the growing medium. So, at harvest, the entire block of grain is thrown into the blender alongside the mycelium mass. The material is ground up together and used as the “mycelial supplement.” That means that the end material contains a lot of starch filler.
Even without the starch, mycelium supplements aren’t so stellar to begin with. In fact, the mycelium of the mushroom is thought to contain a beta-glucan content of around 5%, while the mushroom body (the stem and cap portion) can contain a beta-glucan content of 30% or more. Beta glucans are the bioactive compounds thought to give mushrooms their health benefits.
So, in the end, mycelial supplements are just an easy, cheaper way for manufacturers to legally market a product as a mushroom supplement, even though they contain none of the mushroom benefits.
Breaking Down False Claims that Mushroom Mycelium is Better for Supplements
If you come across any of these brands who manufacture mycelium products, you'll also probably find many claims of superiority. For instance, one brand points out that functional mushrooms are dependent on the mycelium in nature, which is true, but claims this as a reason that the two need to be combined in supplements.
Once mushrooms are fully formed, their wellness benefits are no longer dependent on mycelium. There is no evidence to suggest that consuming mycelium will help you better absorb the nutrients and beta-glucans found in whole mushrooms.
Another brand claims that their substrate is immunologically active after growing mycelium. This is likely true because the grains are fermented, meaning they will contain probiotics similar to other fermented foods, like yogurt. That does not mean that they contain extra beta-glucans, and the addition of grain and mycelium means that the overall beta-glucan content is diluted.
You'll find that many of these brands boast independent research on their products, but never any that compares the benefits of mycelium supplements to mushroom supplements. All in all, it's a lot of marketing and not a lot of science. Stick to fruiting body mushroom supplements if you want biologically active beta-glucans and full-powered wellness benefits.
How Mycelium Can Be Used in the Ecosystem and Society
Although mycelium isn’t that great for supplements, it is incredibly useful both for the mushroom and as a consumable product. In fact, mycelial products are making their way into a new wave of eco-friendly foods and textiles. Some way that mycelium may be used includes:
Cleaning Up the Environment (Mycoremediation)
Some fungus will break down bacteria, plastics, and other waste materials to help remove it from the environment. The act of adding this fungus to an area to help clean the environment is called "mycoremediation."
Roll back to when we talked about mycelial functions. Mycelium releases enzymes that break down "food" into nutrients. Those nutrients can be consumed by the fungus, but are also consumed by the surrounding plants and used to enrich the soil. Through this enzyme process, some fungi can eliminate non biodegradable waste like plastics or hydrocarbons.
Some mycelium can even help to convert petroleum, heavy metals, and even nuclear waste into useful nutrients for the environment. This is great for assisting in reforestation or cleaning up after oil spills. In general, the presence of fungus will result in a cleaner environment.
Making Food Products
Although the mycelium isn't great for supplements, it can be a useful food source. Mainly, it is used to make plant-based meat. The entire mycelium is ground up with the remaining grain and seasoned to create a product that looks and feels similar to meat products.
This is a major benefit to plant-based diets because fungus includes whole amino acids like meat-based proteins and is therefore a healthy source of protein for vegans, vegetarians, or anyone with an adventurous palate.
What's best is that some sources suggest that mycelial based "meat" products require over 90% less land and energy than is required to raise cattle.
Making Building Materials and Textiles
Mycelium is dense and made of chitin, the polymer that makes up an insect's exoskeleton. For this reason, researchers have been digging into the ways that mycelial material can be used to create durable, biodegradable versions of many materials we use today, like:
- Packaging: Mycelium can be used to create an inexpensive packing foam that’s far more biodegradable than what we have today. Plus, it’s relatively inexpensive and flame resistant, so it could eventually be useful for commercial and personal shipping purposes.
- Leather and textiles: Mycelium can be used to make a vegan leather alternative that can be tanned and dyed to create a material that looks and feels like leather. In fact, Adidas has already released a concept Mylo leather shoe, the Stan Smith Mylo, and will likely be furthering this innovation.
- Building materials: Mycelium may help lighten the strain on our tree supply when it comes to building materials. Mycelium can be used to create lightweight, durable building blocks, tiles, particle boards, and more. It’s also currently being used to create fire-resistant insulation and adhesive that can be used in construction. These materials are not commonly available yet, but will certainly be part of a new wave of construction materials that’s more environmentally focused.
Why Use Mycelium for Textiles and Food?
It may seem obvious, but the main push behind using mycelium to create these innovative food and textile products is to help reduce the carbon footprint behind these industries. Using mycelium is a great alternative where its applicable because:
- It consumes less energy while growing.
- It grows faster than trees.
- It produces fewer emissions during farming and manufacturing.
- It does not require as many chemicals as petroleum/plastic based products.
- It’s durable enough for the life of the product but is still biodegradable.
- It’s sustainable.
Mycelium vs. Mushroom
Many people will sum up the mycelium as “part of the mushroom” like a root is part of a plant. But it’s important to clarify that that’s not the case. The mushroom refers specifically to the cap, stem, and gills, which is also referred to as a fungus’ “fruiting body.”
Instead, think of it this way–both the mushroom and the mycelium are parts of the fungus. Both parts are integral and necessary, though they have very different compositions and uses.
The fruiting body contains the mushroom’s spores. When released, they travel through the air or water until they reach a suitable substrate, where they grow into hyphae and eventually into mycelium.
The fruiting body is the part of the fungus that contains the beta-glucans responsible for the wellness benefits associated with mushrooms. It's also the part most commonly used as food, hence it's the part that is most commonly grown and foraged. It’s separate from the mycelium, but integral to the growth of new mycelial masses, and the mycelium is integral to the growth of the mushroom.
Now to the most important question for most mushroom supplement consumers:
Fruiting Body vs Mycelium Supplements: Which is Best?
If you came here to learn what the mycelium is and how it functions, you’re all set. But if you are like many mushroom consumers, you want to know more–are mycelium supplements or fruiting body supplements better?
The answer is clear–supplements made from the fruiting body are cleaner, more pure, and contain a higher concentration of the therapeutic compounds that mushrooms are known for.
Sure, mycelium is a crucial part of the process used to grow and create mushroom supplements, but it doesn’t contain most of the mushroom’s beta-glucans. Using mycelium in mushroom supplement is like putting the dirt, root, and tree bark from an apple tree into the applesauce.
How to Choose a High Quality Mushroom Supplement
Of course, the mycelium vs fruiting body content doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the supplement quality. Choosing a high-quality mushroom supplement is the most important factor in whether you will experience true benefits–and not all mushroom supplements are safely and responsibly made, regardless of which part of the mushroom they contain.
Here are some other things to consider:
- Whole mushroom or mushroom extract? Is the supplement made from whole, dried mushrooms that are ground into a powder, or is it a mushroom extract? Whole mushroom powder will contain all of the nutrients and fiber and bioactive compounds. An extract, however, will contain a concentrated version of the mushroom's bioactive beta-glucans, and is often the kind of formula chosen for medicinal use.
- How is it made? Take a look at the entire manufacturing process. High-quality supplements should be made in a cGMP-compliant facility using FDA-approved ingredients. A great product will be made using organic and responsibly sourced ingredients.
- Is it lab tested? Like all supplements in the U.S., regulations are lower than what’s required for pharmaceuticals. So, it's up to you to check and make sure that products contain what they say they contain. For mushroom supplements, that means third-party lab tests that prove potency and purity.
If you want to take full advantage of the "functional" side of functional mushrooms, consider a mushroom super-blend like our Lucid Coffee, Chai, or Matcha powders. It takes full advantage of the benefits ofsuperfood mushrooms by pairing Cordyceps, Maitake, Tremella, and Lion's Mane, plus powerful nootropics, like BCAA's, L-Theanine, Alpha-GPC, and more.