As mushrooms explode onto the health and wellness scene and sprout into the consciousness of everyday Americans, a lot of people are being bombarded with new buzzwords and trying to decipher what exactly they mean. “Functional mushrooms” is one such example.
Gourmet vs. Medicinal vs. Functional
Science hasn’t a clue, but a safe assumption at the moment places the number of fungi species at more than one million and less than 10 million. Of those, it’s estimated around 2,000 are edible and/or medicinal. Yet most people probably wouldn’t enjoy eating a lot of the “edible” mushrooms out there.
That’s where the term “gourmet” mushrooms or “choice” mushrooms come into play. These ones aren’t just edible; they’re delicious. A couple examples include Oysters (Pleurotus spp.) Shiitake (Lentinula edodes), Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus), Morels (Morchella spp.), and Chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.).
Then, there are medicinal mushrooms. These aren’t really a separate category since many gourmet mushrooms also have medicinal qualities.
Take Lion’s Mane, for example. Not only does it taste great as a seafood substitute (hello, Lion’s Mane crab cakes!!) or pan fried on its own, but it also contains medicinal compounds shown to improve gut health, cognitive function, and prevent Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Shiitake also fit this bill, as they’re delicious to eat and possess anti-tumor, anti-hepatitis, and anti-HIV properties, among other benefits.
So, where do functional mushrooms fit into this discussion? In essence, the phrase “functional mushrooms'' is synonymous with “medicinal mushrooms'' but can also find itself within the gourmet mushroom category as well. The most common mushrooms garnering billing as a “functional mushroom” include Lion’s Mane, Shiitake, Cordyceps (Cordyceps militaris), Reishi (Ganodema lucidum and others), Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), Maitake (Grifola frondosa), and Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor). These mushrooms also happen to be the most commonly cited “medicinal mushrooms.”
Finding the Function
So, what makes a mushroom medicinal or functional? For starters, it needs to have some sort of health benefit. Cordyceps, for example, possesses anti-carcinogenic and anti-fatigue properties. Sounds medicinal and functional, no? Reishi mushrooms also fit the bill with anti-HIV, anti-carcinogenic, and anti-inflammatory benefits, among many other benefits.
By now, you’re probably starting to get the idea of what people mean when they say “functional mushrooms.” But perhaps you’re still curious about how exactly mushrooms become medicinal and/or functional? Well, suffice to say the rabbit hole can get quite deep here, but the main thing you need to know is that many of mushrooms’ medicinal properties are derived from the polysaccharides (e.g. Beta-D-Glucans) and terpenoids within their mycelium (think mushroom roots) and fruiting body, a fancy word for the actual mushrooms coming out of the ground.
For a more complete explanation of how medicinal mushrooms work, check out our article “What Are Medicinal Mushrooms?”