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Is a shroom boom due in functional drinks?

Food innovators believe medicinal mushrooms could be the next frontier of health. How do they plan to bring fungi to the masses?

Could functional food and drinks benefit from a dose of medicinal mushrooms? The analysts certainly think so. Grand View Research estimates the global functional mushroom category will be worth $24.9bn this year, with a projected market size of $47.2bn by 2028.

The pandemic proved a kickstart to this boom. “People were looking at ways to boost their immunity naturally,” says Zoey Henderson, founder of low-alcohol mushroom beer brand Fungtn.

“There was this whole resurgence of people looking to plants and fungi to boost their health,” she adds. “And obviously these mushrooms have been used medicinally for thousands of years.”

It’s a trend that has now caught the attention of wellness influencers. Through her lifestyle brand Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow has lately been extolling the benefits of mushroom varieties like lion’s mane and cordyceps, said to be capable of reducing stress and inflammation in the body.

So what are the prospects for medicinal mushrooms in food and drink? How are brands and retailers exposing shoppers to this emerging category? And how will suppliers demonstrate the health benefits to the mainstream population?

Fungtn is a prime example of a burgeoning brand in this space. Henderson started the mushroom-containing beer business in 2020, after discovering the medicinal benefits.

The brand quickly established a direct to consumer (DTC) service and retail listings in the US, followed by its first UK listing in Planet Organic.

For Henderson, a beer format makes sense. “I think taking supplements can be seen as boring,” she says. “But if you’re taking nutrients in a fun way, like in a beer, you’re more likely to keep doing it. And because it’s low alcohol, you’re not going to get a hangover.”

Other brands have also seen potential in drinkable mushrooms. In March 2020, London Nootropics started selling its adaptogenic coffee blend – using lion’s mane and cordyceps mushrooms – online.

“The timing was incredible, because all the coffee shops were closing, and people were starting to be more health-conscious because of the pandemic. So pretty much straight away we started to see sales online,” says co-founder Zain Peer.

The brand started to find more mainstream success in February 2022, after winning a £50K investment from Dragons’ Den. “It was incredible for visibility because people come up to us at trade shows and tell us they saw it,” says Peer.

This year, London Nootropics gained a listing in Harrods – an expansion beyond its heartlands of health stores and DTC sales.

“If you take nutrients in a fun way, like in a beer, you’re more likely to keep doing it”

It also runs a pop-up café by Piccadilly Circus showcasing mushroom chocolates and products from fellow mushroom brands.

“On our retail shelf, we’ve got mushroom tinctures from Finland and some mushroom powders from Spain. People can come in, experience our coffees and then look at the retail shelf and check out the medicinal mushroom products,” Peer says.

It’s not the only brand finding its way on to retail shelves. Cheerful Buddha has several mushroom coffee lines available in Holland & Barrett, featuring lion’s mane, chaga and reishi mushrooms.

Smaller online brands are catching attention too. Take Rheal, whose Shroom Coffee claims to offer “calm energy without the jitters or crash”. Sales of its full range of snacks, powders and other healthy products are expected to top £6.9m this year.

Still, Rheal also serves to highlight that a shroom hit doesn’t exactly come cheap. Its coffee comes at £35 for 150g. That’s at the top end of the market, but Cheerful Buddha is still on the pricey side, at £13.99 for 150g.

Beyond price, there are other barriers to mass adoption. High-end mushrooms are often prized for their umami flavours, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to a great-tasting functional food or drink.

“People are a little sceptical when they hear ‘mushroom coffee’,” admits Peer. Put simply, consumers often fear their caffeine fix will taste of mushrooms.

And fungi-flavoured coffee – or beer, in the case of Fungtn – isn’t a proposition that will tantalise many tastebuds. But Fungtn’s Henderson is adamant medicinal mushroom flavours can be used in food and drink.

“I’ve worked in coffee and know that the flavour profiles of coffee and beer are quite similar,” she says. “The mushrooms we use are quite earthy and bitter – just like hops, so they work together. It doesn’t interfere with the taste people expect.”

And any reticence over the taste could be outweighed by the health benefits, which are increasingly coming to the fore. Lion’s mane, for example, is said to help protect brain health over the long term.

“The mushrooms we use are quite earthy and bitter – just like hops, so they work together”

Meanwhile, studies have indicated reishi mushrooms have benefits in sleep quality, immunity and stress. Puresport, which uses the mushrooms in its Recovery Reishi capsules, claims they also “positively interact with the gut microbiome”.

Another of the brand’s products, Cardiovascular Cordyceps, features cordyceps mushrooms, claimed to support heart health and respiratory function. They can boost production of adenosine triphosphate, which is “essential in delivering energy to muscles, and can improve the way oxygen is delivered throughout the body”.

Founder Grayson Hart says there is burgeoning interest in “natural alternatives” for health. These are moving into the mainstream “due to the popularity of podcasts, YouTube and social media” and more people looking into the topic online.

The new CBD?

For him, mushrooms could well develop in a similar way “to how things have unfolded with CBD”. That’s promising given the market for the medicinal cannabis compound, claimed to relieve stress and improve sleep, is now worth around £29.5m in the UK [Kantar 52 w/e 15 May 2022].

Clinical research has played its part in helping CBD gain ground. Increasingly, research is supporting the use of mushrooms too. “In the last 10 years we’ve seen loads of clinical studies in the west proving their benefits. We knew monks use lion’s mane to improve focus, but research now actually shows it helps grow nerves in the brain,” says Peer of London Nootropics.

The introduction of an FSA regulatory regime in April this year, which forced non-compliant products off the market and made authorisation mandatory for new products, also helped add legitimacy to CBD.

Something similar could well happen in mushrooms, but Hart is not waiting around for official regulation. Puresport recently gained certification for its mushroom products with independent accreditation body Informed Sport.

Hart wants to use accreditation “to accelerate trust and education to audiences that may not have considered they could use mushrooms to optimise brain, body and mind”.

These kinds of moves may be the first step towards a mainstream market for mushroom-containing beer, coffee and pills. For now, it seems the ground is fertile for an all-new shroom season.