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26 Aug, 2021 | 6 minutes
Curious about mushrooms? We're some way off widespread micro-dosing, but the fungi family commands powerful associations with brain function and mood enhancement - and this is attracting the attention of brands and consumers. Less potent varieties are now on the rise, including Lion’s Mane, Chaga, Reishi, Cordyceps and Turkey Tail. But are mainstream audiences ready? MMR's Andrew Wardlaw and Adin Heller investigate.
In preparation for MMR’s Functional Festival, on Wednesday 20th October, we've been reading ‘How to Change Your Mind’ by Michael Pollen. It’s a fascinating read that ‘reminds us that the mind is the greatest mystery in the universe’ - according to one reviewer.
Michael recalls a time when an inconspicuous brown mushroom, which would become known as psilocybin was helping scientists to discover how certain neurotransmitters in the brain could be used to treat a range of disorders – from alcoholism to depression. That was in the 1950s. The arrival of ‘counterculture’ and ‘acid trips’ in the 1960s soon put a lid on further progress. Fast forward to the 2010s and science has revived its interest – with compelling evidence that psilocybin can have profoundly positive impacts on a range of mental conditions.
An article in the New York Times in 2010 followed a group of terminally ill cancer patients that had been given large doses of psilocybin to help them deal with their distress. The article observed that “individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego free states and return with a brand-new perspective and profound acceptance.” The patients no longer feared death, because they had experienced something of a much higher order than mere life on earth.
In other micro-dosing cases, participants rated the experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives – like the birth of a child or death of a parent. If you weren’t curious before, you must surely be by now!
Making it mainstream?
While attitudes are beginning to change, including the legalization of controlled micro-dosing in two U.S states, we are a long way off from a psilocybin milkshake. This despite the fact that the ingredient is not in itself lethal or addictive.
However, with a range of more docile fungi families rocking up at the edges of grocery, we wanted to tap into mainstream reactions. Will these ingredients give functional brands a new edge, or will shoppers turn around in fear of some psychedelic trip to the dark side?
To explore, MMR played host to a vibrant community of stateside consumers. Many participants self-identified as struggling with anxiety. Some were clinically diagnosed and using prescription medication. All were turning to various food supplements and grocery products to support mental health.
With 70% of Americans on at least one prescription medicine, and the second most common prescription issued being for depression, there are powerful reasons why mushroom based ingredients should feature in more everyday dietary products.
Although anxiety and mental health can still be stigmatized in society, our community struck a more positive note, with participants actively finding ways to manage their mental health, including an active interest in any ingredients that could help.
Experience of mushrooms - beyond that of a pizza topping - was fairly low among participants. Some had considered the existence of so-called magic mushrooms, and this never fails to generate excitement and fear – often at the same time! So, to move things up a gear, we shared a few articles from trusted sources that explored functional mushrooms and their range of benefits. This proved to be a revelation for our community.
“I’ve heard of a few mushrooms, but there is a whole lot more that I hadn't heard about. Seeing some of the potential benefits was great to learn. I was surprised to read that it only takes about 2 weeks to start to see a benefit from functional mushrooms.”
“It’s been a tough year being a working mom during this pandemic - especially with young kids. While I know a mushroom won’t cure stress, if it’s something I can incorporate into my diet, I will absolutely give it a try.”
“Many mushroom products talk about beta glucans, which I'd heard of and know that they are 'good for you', but I didn’t actually know why. I love that they lower inflammation, lower cholesterol and have fibre. I didn't realize also how many types of different functional mushrooms…”
Comments like these underline the potential for trial with mass audiences. Health has just got serious after all, and there is an appetite out there for new sources of inspiration and hope.
Triggers and barriers
More than half of us have been using the internet more to learn more about ingredients, according to research by MMR. More often than not, the trigger for search is a sudden personal health issue or seeing a product containing a particular ingredient that is unfamiliar at the time.
Whether or not the interest converts into a purchase is often determined by that individual’s confidence in the information they have seen or concerns over the appeal of a product.
Let’s face it, for most people, a Mushroom Latte feels like a poor replacement for the usual caffeine hit.
Our community underlined the relatively low levels of familiarity and understanding around functional mushrooms. There is some association to cognitive function (those magic mushrooms again) but certainly no obvious links to common health priorities.
Invitation to try
To learn first-hand how people decode their early experience of mushroom infused food and beverages, we invited participants purchase a selection of products that are pushing at the edges of everyday categories such as coffee and snack bars.
Perceptions of packaging was mixed. The community noted a general expanse of browns and earth-tones, and while participants acknowledge that such colours reinforce associations with natural and mushrooms, they also create expectations of a bland or earthy tasting product, which can be a turn-off.
When it comes to efficacy, being bright helps. One participant suggested vibrant yellows, oranges, and reds. These comments mirror what MMR’s sensory unit recommends – that brightness is linked to efficacy and sets up expectations of a more positive outcome.
Experiences of product was generally positive, with a typical review highlighting that reservations about taste were largely unfounded.
“It's better than expected and after having a few cups of it already, the taste is growing on me…I was expecting something that I had to ‘grin and bear’. Instead, it's a drink that is light and the taste is great.” (Four Sigmatic Mushroom Coffee Mix, with Lion’s Mane.)
Ingredients with buzz
As participants reflected upon their experiences, it was clear that much of what had been learned was going to be shared with friends and family. They had discovered things that they felt deserved to be common knowledge.
One lady spoke about her mom and what she’d learned.
“My mom's really into herbal medicines and natural cures. She believes that mushrooms helped her through chemotherapy, and many of her friends swear by taking them as preventative measures. One podcast she recommended raves on about all things mushrooms, so I've learned a thing or two there. They’re supposedly life changing.”
Some are aware of the more magical side, which brings in psilocybin and micro-dosing.
“When I hear functional mushrooms the first thing that comes to mind is micro-dosing psychedelic mushrooms. I've heard them being used to treat mental health disorders and apparently, they work!”
For some, psychedelics is the next step on their mushroom journey, but for others it is a step too far and could have stopped them from trying commonly available ingredients had we not given them a gentle nudge.
But what is clear is, mushroom based ingredients have a certain buzz about them. And with all the hype around CBD raising people’s curiosity around the existence of ‘mind supporting’ substances, we expect mushrooms to literally mushroom in sales in the years ahead.
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