The Fight for Clear Mushroom Labeling with Skye Chilton of Real Mushrooms

The Fight for Clear Mushroom Labeling with Skye Chilton of Real Mushrooms

Vivian Kanchian
Vivian Kanchian
May 07, 2024
7 min

Nammex began in 1989 with Jeff Chilton, who has a rich 50-year history of growing medicinal mushrooms using best practices. The company has since expanded to provide bulk organic mushroom extract ingredients to more than 500 companies of various sizes, from new startups to Fortune 500 companies.

In 2014, Jeff’s son Skye Chilton joined Nammex, and shortly after that, founded Real Mushrooms (Nammex’s consumer line affiliate). In addition to supplying consistently high-quality, organic mushrooms, Nammex has also become the industry leader in mushroom analysis and research while advocating for full transparency in product labeling.

Their most recent efforts around truth-in-advertising culminated in this survey of 10,000 people – showing that consumers are overwhelmingly clear on what constitutes a real mushroom. On his flight back home from a December 2023 business trip to China, Skye was kind enough to respond to our questions.

Vivian Kanchian: What prompted this survey? Why now?

Skye Chilton: This is a follow-up to our Citizen Petition that was submitted to the FDA in June 2023. While we received great response and feedback from our industry peers, we also wanted feedback from consumers. We believed consumers knew what a mushroom is and our survey confirmed that.

To us, the most important reason for requiring clear and accurate labeling of mushroom products is so consumers get what they expect when they buy a product; knowing how they define a mushroom adds weight to our point.

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VK: What part of the survey results surprised you the most?

SC: The most surprising part was that we had to commission a survey to confirm what consumers think a mushroom is, because although we think it’s obvious, some companies disagree. People do know what a mushroom is and our survey confirmed it.

While this is a big issue in dietary supplements where manufacturers are dealing with various colored powdered ingredients, imagine this in a grocery store setting. For example, you ask for mushrooms and get handed a bag of grain with some white stuff (mycelium) on it. No one would accept that or believe that it is a mushroom. 

VK: What exactly are you seeking from the FDA? And why is it a good thing to have them regulate mushroom products? Is that your goal with a survey like this? 

SC: FDA already regulates all dietary supplements, including fungal products, under a variety of laws but mainly the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA). Most of that regulation involves Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and labeling requirements.

While those regulations are very specific about labeling the part of the plant for botanicals, it’s not as specific for fungi, but it should be. It just makes sense, especially given that the FDA already has a labeling policy for mycelium-based foods dating from 1976. In it they state that mycelium products should be labeled correctly and not suggest or imply that the product contains mushrooms. This is very specific language and is exactly what we are trying to point out about dietary supplements. 

Many consumers believe they are consuming mushrooms when they aren’t. 

We are seeking further clarification from the FDA to update their labeling policy and make it clear how fungal-based products should be labeled clearly so as to properly inform consumers of what they are purchasing. 

VK: The majority of respondents were 34 and younger. Is this an accurate reflection of the consumer demographic?

SC: Based on our own data, the respondent data set we received from Prolific is a little on the younger side but that segment of the population takes a lot of dietary supplements. 

VK: Why has this been such a hot button issue among mushroom suppliers? 

SC: For decades, producers of myceliated grain have marketed these ingredients as “mushroom” and not disclosed the grain substrate, seriously misleading the companies purchasing these ingredients as well as confusing consumers.

Myceliated grain is being produced in North America because it is too expensive to produce actual mushroom extract powders. Producing fermented grain and calling it mushroom is not a fair business practice. 

VK: In my conversation with Ron Teeguarden, he talked about what a serious offense it is to sell mycelium products to consumers in China. And they really mean business. Selling reishi mycelium, for example, is illegal—people could go to prison for doing that.

SC: I’m unsure about this claim as Cordyceps Cs-4 and PSP are both mycelium-based and approved by the government to sell in China. Maybe it’s more a matter of misleading consumers by claiming it’s reishi mushroom when it’s actually mycelium, which would be adulteration, and adulterating products is a serious offense. 

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VK: To what do you attribute our relative lack of knowledge/standards in the West? For example, most of us aren’t connected to how our food is grown. In the US, hydroponically grown blueberries are approved for sale as organic. 

SC: The lack of knowledge stems from a variety of reasons. Many consumers are only familiar with the button mushroom and have no experience with other culinary or functional mushrooms. North America is definitely more mycophobic compared to Asia. Mushrooms are not part of the culture like they are in China.

As an example, on my recent trip to China I consumed over a dozen different wild and cultivated mushrooms at our various lunches and dinners, including white button, tremella, shiitake, maitake, lions mane, wood ear, cordyceps, king oyster, shimeji and enoki, to name a few. 

It’s been profitable for some companies to keep consumers confused. Many US-based myceliated grain producers have been misleading consumers for decades by using the term “mushroom” and using photos of these mushrooms in their marketing materials.

As demonstrated by our survey, consumers know what a mushroom is so when consumers see the word “mushroom” and photos of said mushroom, they believe that mushroom is in the product, but in many cases it isn’t. 

VK: For the longest time, I wondered about one popular brand’s sale of chaga mushroom mycelium. From what I knew about the way chaga grows and becomes medicinal, I couldn’t understand how this brand could sell “cultured chaga mycelium” because this fungus is more like a parasite than it is an actual mushroom (destroying the tree it grows on). It takes time (and nutrients from decomposing matter) for it to become medicinal. I’ve asked a couple of other people, I’d love your take on this. Can cultured chaga mycelium possibly mimic the health benefits of the real thing? 

SC: Chaga is a great example of this issue. Chaga is neither a mushroom nor pure mycelium. The fungus is classified as a tree disease that primarily grows on birch trees and a result of the tree’s reaction to the fungus is the production of an external canker that is a mix of mycelium and wood. We call this canker chaga. Many of the active compounds like betulin and betulinic acid are from the birch tree. No birch tree = no birch compounds. 

Growing the mycelium in liquid fermentation would not produce these birch-related compounds. Growing the mycelium on a grain substrate would also not produce these birch-related compounds.

The cultured mycelium, whether liquid or solid-state fermentation, could have beneficial properties but that is not the issue. The issue comes when consumers are being misled to believe that the actual chaga canker is being sold when it is not. If marketing materials are using images of chaga to sell a product with no chaga then that is a serious misrepresentation. 

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VK: Is it possible that mycelium have their own unique health benefits (as in the case of lions mane)? 

SC: Certainly mycelium does have benefits, separate from those of mushrooms. Cordyceps Cs-4, PSP, PSK, AHCC are all mycelium-based products approved and sold in China and Japan. Each has large amounts of published research but these products are made from pure mycelium produced through liquid fermentation which then undergoes further extraction and purification to make them more akin to a pharmaceutical than a dietary supplement. 

Growing mycelium on a grain substrate where the majority of the resulting ingredient is the grain is in no way equivalent to a highly purified extract of liquid fermented mycelium, and research on the pharma-style products should not be used to substantiate myceliated grain. 

Lion’s mane is a great example as the mushroom contains hericenones and the mycelium contains erinacines both of which have shown activity in research papers. While it is easy to point to this as a use case for the mycelium, one must be able to verify that these compounds are actually present.

One paper looking at erinacine A content in pure mycelium found that it only contained 0.01%. A clinical trial using erinacine A used a dose of 5mg which would be equivalent to a 50 gram dose using the pure mycelium from the previous paper.

Now given that the majority of mycelium based products are myceliated grain and not pure mycelium, an equivalent dose would be multiple times higher than 50 grams, well beyond what is likely contained in an entire single bottle of product. 

VK: And might culturing certain at-risk mushrooms make good sense (eg. Cordyceps). Is it possible some of these mushroom manufacturers are good intentioned/hoping to prevent people from depleting a scarce resource by pretending to sell an affordable (albeit inferior) version of it? 

SC: Most mushrooms are cultivated so are not a scarce resource. China in particular has extensive mushroom growing operations, which makes sense given the long history of both medicinal and culinary use of mushrooms in that country. 

We have long-standing relationships with our partners in China, who are some of the world’s top experts in mushroom cultivation. We have recently helped to develop the largest cultivated turkey tail mushroom operation in the world, producing over 25,000 kilos of dried mushrooms in 2023. 

Ophiocordyceps sinensis could be an example of a comparatively rare material. The majority of O. sinensis (the caterpillar fungus) stays within China. Recently they have started to impose harvesting restrictions on the caterpillar fungus to make sure it is sustainable. After decades of research and development, O. sinensis is now being cultivated and China is producing many tons of cultivated caterpillar fungus every year.

The original R&D is how Cordyceps Cs-4 was created in the 1980’s. We only sell Cordyceps militaris, a species used interchangeably with O. sinensis by Traditional Chinese Medicine. Cordyceps militaris is cultivated, not wildcrafted and is the primary Cordyceps sold in North America. 

Some claim that chaga sustainability is at risk but this is not true since harvesting the chaga does not kill the organism nor limit its ability to reproduce. Some chaga cultivation is taking place in Finland. 

The primary reason why myceliated grain is being produced in North America is because producing real mushroom extract powders is simply too expensive.

Fact Checked: Shannon Ratliff


Vivian Kanchian

Vivian Kanchian

Content Writer

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