Documentary explores the magic of mushrooms

With documentary film ‘Fantastic Fungi’ set to take the world by storm, Joe McNamee looks at the fabulous world of mushrooms

Dr Lucy Deegan, microbiologist, and food scientist, Mark Cribben, of Ballyhoura Mushrooms in the Shitake mushroom growhouse. Picture: Picture: Dan Linehan
Dr Lucy Deegan, microbiologist, and food scientist, Mark Cribben, of Ballyhoura Mushrooms in the Shitake mushroom growhouse. Picture: Picture: Dan Linehan

I take them before breakfast, one capsule of Lion’s Mane extract, a quarter teaspoon each of powdered reishi and cordyceps. Reishi tastes alkaline, slightly bitter, not unlike cocoa powder, while cordyceps is sweet and fruity.

All three are from a new Irish range of fungi-derived health and nutrition supplements produced by Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms (BMM).

While BMM are legally proscribed in Ireland from making specific claims for their purported properties or efficacy, it is no trouble to establish those elsewhere as this is already a booming sector in the US, and my exceedingly non-clinical trials are to see if I can ‘increase vitality and endurance’ (cordyceps), ‘improve cognitive functioning’ (lion’s mane), and ‘build immunity and immune function’ (reishi).

Mushrooms have been used in traditional medicine, particularly in Asia, for thousands of years but before myriad Western skeptics blithely dismiss them along rather more ‘outré’ remedies available in the alternative health arena, know this: reishi is used, in Japan and China, in mainstream medicine as an adjunct treatment for cancer; and that’s just for starters.

A recent paper in US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences linked reishi’s use to cancer cell death.

A Taiwanese research team found F3 polysaccharides (also reishi) can induce antibodies to recognise and kill antigens associated with tumours or cancer cells.

In human trials by the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre, maitake mushrooms have been shown to stimulate the immune systems of breast cancer patients. Professor Sensuke Konno, New York Medical College, found maitake extracts (GD and PL fractions), when combined with vitamin C, not only reduced growth of bladder cancer cells by 90% in 72 hours but were also highly effective in entirely dispatching them.

The most renowned medicinal mushroom of all, shiitake, contains lentinan, a polysaccharide found by a research team at Harbin University, China, to be ‘beneficial in terms of increasing mean survival duration, tumour necrosis and reduction of the recurrence rate’.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, a mere hint of the vast untapped scientific potential to be found in the kingdom of fungi, a hitherto largely ignored area of biological research in comparison to the animal and plant kingdoms.

The more we learn, the more we realise how crucial fungi are to all life on earth.

They are critical for the decomposition of dead matter and recycling nutrients and we have barely scratched the surface of other potential benefits for humankind.

The 20th century was declared the ‘Century of Physics’ (nuclear weapons, quantum physics, giant particle accelerators, etc), and, with the first draft of the human genetic code, in 2000, many predicted the 21st century would be the ‘Century of Biology’.

That has yet to come to pass but a global study co-ordinated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, at Kew, in Britain — State of the World’s Fungi 2018 — demonstrating the myriad areas of potential and highly lucrative research into the fungi kingdom, has aroused enormous interest amongst the scientific community.

Furthermore, a new documentary, Fantastic Fungi, directed by Louie Schwartzberg, narrated by actress Brie Larson, and set to be a major crossover success, should raise public interest even higher, described by The New York Times as ‘nothing less than a model for planetary survival’.

Perhaps we are actually on the cusp of ‘The Century of Fungi’; as US food writer Michael Pollan says in the film: “It’s amazing what we don’t know about mushrooms [and fungi], we are at a frontier of knowledge.”

For years largely ignored fungi were classified as plants until scientists began to realise though closer to being animal, they were actually neither. Mushrooms are very far from being the entirety of the fungi kingdom — indeed you might call mushrooms the ‘fruit’ of a much larger ‘tree’, which is the fungus organism.

Nearly a decade ago, fleeing Mahon Point Farmers’ Market, already late to collect my daughter from Montessori, I spotted a lone woman standing by a tiny camping table in the community stall area, where potential stallholders can first introduce wares to the public for valuable feedback.

She didn’t appear to be attracting much attention and my passing glance was desultory. A bowl of gorgeous freshly foraged golden chanterelles stopped me in my tracks. The single other bowl contained shiitakes.

“Where did you get those,” I asked. “I grew them,” she replied. I was late collecting daughter.

That was my first meeting with microbiologist Dr Lucy Deegan, who along with husband and food scientist Mark Cribben, have turned BMM into Ireland’s foremost speciality mushroom producers, growing a staggering variety of award-winning mushrooms used in many of Ireland’s finest restaurants (including Michelin starred Chapter One, Loam and Aimsir) and producing a range of mushroom-derived food products that have won multiple national and international awards, including the highest accolade at Britain’s Great Taste awards.

As mycologists (mushroom experts), they have led me on my own personal epicurean journey, from a once reasonable interest to a now all-consuming passion, as I became a committed mycophagist (mushroom lover), increasingly obsessed with the world of fabulous fungi.

Our present knowledge of fungi may be comparatively small but we do know their utterly crucial role in nature includes: global cycling of nutrients, especially through breakdown and decomposition of organic matter to feed the growth of new plant life: carbon sequestration; and even arresting desertification in drought-prone parts of the globe.

Mankind has already worked out how to use them in the production of critical drugs (including statins, used to lower cholesterol) and antibiotics — wondrous penicillium also moonlights in the synthesis of contraceptive pills and cheese production.

Fungus is used in the synthesis of biofuels and environmental cleanup, and fungi-derived products can be used for synthetic rubber, plastic car parts and even Lego.

Whenever you mention the properties of fungi, some wag invariably starts sniggering about moonlight teenage flits around the golf course for magic mushrooms, but the potential in psychedelic mushrooms is equally becoming a serious business, in particular, the hallucinogenic properties of extracted psilocybin, now being studied for its ability to treat mental illnesses, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and chronic depression.

Edible mushrooms and truffles, a global market estimated to be worth $42 billion per annum, have been consumed since prehistoric times.

They are not only delicious but provide B vitamins and minerals such as potassium, phosphorous, selenium and iron, yet are low in calories. Fungi have also been used in the making of breads, cheeses and yeast-based drinks for thousands of years.

Mark Cribben, a food scientist from Dublin, met microbiologist Dr Lucy Deegan, from Glasgow, when both were working at the Teagasc research centre in Moorepark, near Fermoy, in Co Cork.

Meeting Cribben led Deegan from the cerebral world of academia to a more practical relationship with the food world.

Lucy Deegan and Mark Cribben. Picture: Dan Linehan
Lucy Deegan and Mark Cribben. Picture: Dan Linehan

“I was always interested in food,” says Deegan, “but from a pleasure point of view but when I met Mark, I got interested in growing different things as well, I wouldn’t have had that in my background. At the time, I was very interested in River Cottage, at explaining where food came from, how it was grown and all about wild food which led me to hobby growing mushrooms and building up knowledge.

I visited small companies, in Wales and Scotland, who were growing and supplying restaurants and came back and wrote a business plan and started growing a small quantity — and, yes, the business ‘mushroomed’!”

BMM began nine years ago, initially selling raw mushrooms, then adding mushroom-derived food products. Last autumn, they launched their range of entirely self-produced supplements.

“We looked at the market and saw similar products were being very well received in the US,” says Cribben, “but nobody here in Ireland had the raw material to make it. We had that but, also, because of our professional backgrounds, we were able to avoid having it contract manufactured, with no real control over traceability — we have complete control, from growing the mushrooms to producing the finished product.”

Cribben, who spent many years working with some of the world’s largest food corporations, is aware there may be initial skepticism.

“In the early 2000s, I worked in the [Irish] dairy nutrition market and would have been involved in conferences in the US when the sector was first looking at whey nutrition.” (The whey protein industry in Ireland is now predicted to be worth €225million by 2022.)

Back then, it was considered niche, not mainstream. Back then the whole trans fat thing was only coming to wider attention. Quinoa was niche. Kombucha was very niche.

"There are now three or four kombucha manufacturers in Ireland and it is becoming mainstream. Quinoa is on menus up and down the country. I would very much see these supplements as being at a similar early stage of development.

“With the supplements, we are looking to increase the components people are interested in from a health and nutritional perspective. You can pop a capsule or add it to a smoothie but it is also infinitely more quantifiable, you can measure it.

"We’ve already been approached by a well-known health enterprise to contract manufacture for them.

“Going back to my academic work,” says Deegan, “I knew fungi yeasts were so important, to food and medicine and I was aware of the potential of mushrooms, they’re essentially medicine in their own right.

"They are great workhorses, not only can you enjoy them from a culinary point of view but they can improve your health through the components in the mushrooms.”

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