Anyone practicing functional medicine is paying attention to product quality. There is no question we want the best for our patients. Routinely we ask about source materials, QC testing and contaminants, active ingredient data, clinical research, additives. By and large, I am confident in the companies I choose to use and prescribe to my patients.
But what about medicinal mushrooms?
Chances are you’re using them in practice more and more. With the stellar research looking at neurodegenerative diseases, autoimmunity, cognitive decline, cancer and general immune support, their place in our toolkits is well-established.
But are you actually getting …. mushrooms?
Unfortunately, the answer appears to be, for most products on the market, NO. And I will admit that what I thought was a top-quality product seems not to be. Indeed, what I was prescribing probably contained scant active constituents (beta glucans, triterpenoids, ergosterol) and comprised mostly of inert starch. The conversation I had with mycologist (and industry veteran) Jeff Chilton was a practice changer for me, and I suspect it will be for you, too. I look forward to hearing what you think.
A wide body of research—not to mention centuries of use in Chinese medicine—has shown the power of medicinal mushrooms in promoting health, and no one knows more about the cultivation, manufacture, and distribution of supplemental mushrooms in modern integrative health care than Jeff Chilton. The president of Nammex, one of the biggest medicinal mushroom extract companies in the nutritional supplement industry, Jeff talks with Dr. Fitzgerald in this episode of New Frontiers about how mushrooms are grown and cultivated (and why that matters for supplement quality) and how clinicians and consumers can tell if mushroom supplements contain any actual medicinal value or not.
In this podcast you’ll hear:
- Why it’s so important to learn about product quality of medicinal mushroom products before using
- The different stages of a medicinal mushroom: spore, mycelium, mushroom
- The nutrients and substrates needed for mushrooms to grow
- Why mushrooms are difficult to digest
- What beta glucan is and why it’s important to understand the structure in each mushroom to determine how active its medicinal qualities are
- About the sterol in mushrooms called ergosterol, which is an anti-oxidant
- About the bitter component in some mushrooms called triterpenoids, and why they are special
- How to test to see if your mushroom extract is actually beta glucans or just inexpensive starch!
- Why the mycelium in mushroom product is not like the medicinal kind grown in a lab.
- The difference between eating a mushroom, taking the powder and taking an extract
During the next 10 years he became the production manager, responsible for the cultivation of over 2 million pounds of agaricus mushrooms per year. He was also involved in the research and development of shiitake, oyster and enoki mushrooms which resulted in the earliest US fresh shiitake sales in 1978.
In the late seventies he was a founder of Mycomedia, which held 4 mushroom conferences in the Pacific Northwest. These educational conferences brought together educators and experts in mushroom identification, ethnomycology, and mushroom cultivation. During this period Jeff co-authored the highly acclaimed book, The Mushroom Cultivator, which was published in 1983.
In the 1980’s he operated a mushroom spawn business and in 1989 he started Nammex, a business that introduced medicinal mushrooms to the US nutritional supplement industry. He traveled extensively in China during the 1990’s, attending conferences and visiting research facilities and mushroom farms. In 1997 he organized the first organic mushroom production seminar in China.
A founding member of the World Society for Mushroom Biology and Mushroom Products in 1994 and a Member of the International Society for Mushroom Science, Mr. Chilton’s company was the first to offer a complete line of Certified Organic mushroom extracts to the US nutritional supplement industry.Nammex extracts are used by many supplement companies and are noted for their high quality based on scientific analysis of the active compounds.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Hi everybody, welcome to New Frontiers in Functional Medicine, where we are interviewing the best minds in functional medicine, and today is no exception. Incidentally, if you enjoy what you hear, if you would circle over to iTunes and leave us a review, I would be most, most, most grateful. I think today we’ve got a real game changer of an interview. Thrilled to be talking with Jeff Chilton, who’s the president of Nammex, perhaps one of the larger companies in our space who you’ve never heard of.
Let me just give you his background, and from that you’ll learn really quickly where we’re going today, what our topic’s going to be. Jeff was raised in the Pacific Northwest. He studied ethnomycology at the University of Washington in the late 60s. In 1973, he started work on a commercial mushroom farm in Olympia, Washington, and during the next 10 years he became production manager responsible for the cultivation of over two million pounds of agaricus mushrooms per year. He was also involved in the research and development of Shiitake, Oyster, and Enoki mushrooms, which resulted in the earliest US fresh Shiitake sales in 1978. In fact, I remember my mom bringing those home.
In the late 70s, he founded Mycomedia, which held four mushroom conferences in the Pacific Northwest, and they brought together educators and experts and scientists of all kinds in mushroom identification, ethnomycology, and cultivation. During this period, Jeff co-authored the highly acclaimed book, The Mushroom Cultivator, which was published in 1983. In the 80s, he operated a mushroom spawn business, and in 89 he started his current company, Nammex, a business that introduced medicinal mushrooms to the US nutritional supplemental industry.
He has traveled extensively in China during the 90s, attending conferences, visiting research facilities, mushroom farms and he organized the first organic mushroom production seminar in China in the late 90s. A founding member of the World Society for Mushroom Biology and Mushroom Products in 1994 and a member of the International Society for Mushroom Science. Jeff’s company was the first to offer a complete line of certified organic mushroom extracts to the US nutritional supplement industry and these are used by companies of all kinds and are appreciated for their high quality and also the scientific analysis of the active compounds.
And, you know, I had probably a three-hour conversation with you, Jeff, a couple of weeks ago, and it was a game changer. It was a profound game changer for me. It has shifted the way that I’m using medicinal mushrooms in practice, so the folks listening, most folks are clinicians and savvy, savvy consumers who want to know the latest and the best, and of course medicinal mushrooms are now on our radar big time and the research behind them is beautiful. We understand the power potential of using medicinal mushrooms with our patients. However, you’ve been dedicated, for your life, really, to product quality and really determining whether or not we’re getting what we’re paying for. Medicinal mushrooms aren’t cheap and you have to dose relatively high when you want to achieve a certain outcome, and we’ll talk about that later on, but we’re going to spend a good chunk of time discussing product quality and how you are a big voice in bringing that to the fore in this world.
But before we do that, I want to just back up and do a little primer on all things mushroom, so I’m going to turn it over to you, Jeff, and just welcome. I appreciate you being here with me today.
Jeff Chilton: Well, thank you very much for having me. I’m happy to be here, Kara. Well, I guess what I would say first of all is that you know what I find when I’m out there, I find that a lot of people have a fairly good idea of what mushrooms do, but not very many people know much about product quality and that’s particularly true even with practitioners and it’s really unfortunate. Now I understand because practitioners are very busy people and they can’t keep up on a lot of things, so when it comes to medicinal mushrooms, they don’t know a lot about product quality and the fact of the matter is, up until recently, there haven’t been a lot of tests that we can use to actually determine product quality.
Today, we have those tests and certainly we’ll talk about that, but in terms of mushrooms themselves and just a brief history of that, mushrooms have always been wild crafted. They’ve been with us for thousands of years as food and mushrooms are a great food. In fact, in the 1700s in Britain, they used to call mushrooms poor man’s meat, which I thought was really interesting because people, a lot of people say, “Oh, mushrooms are quite meaty,” and now we have these big Portobellos that you can slice them into steaks. So, it’s really interesting, but in terms of cultivation, in Europe cultivation really came kind of late and it started by people just digging up the ground where mushrooms grew and implanting that into a bed of similar materials, like pasture, compost or something like that.
That’s how it started, but in China in the twelfth century, they actually discovered how to grow Shiitake mushrooms. So really, China was the birthplace of mushroom cultivation and the key to cultivating mushrooms is what do you use for the seed and mushrooms don’t have seeds, so figure that one out. How do you plant this thing if you don’t have seeds? Ultimately, what they figured out … Mushrooms have spores, by the way, that’s how they reproduce. People figured out, okay, you can’t use spores as seeds, so they were able to and they figured out that you could take a piece of the mushroom or take the spores, germinate them in a Petri dish and you would grow a fine filament, which is called mycelium, so for what we call mushroom spawn or seed, live mycelium is what is used to actually, as our seed, to grow mushrooms.
That was actually something that was discovered in, oh, in terms of pure culture, in the early 1900s. That was a game changer for mushroom cultivation. Today, they can make spawn from many different mushrooms. The other thing that they do with mushrooms is they actually can take that mycelium and put it into very large tanks of liquid and in what they call fermentation, and grow out large amounts of pure mycelium. That’s something that’s gone on, and that’s actually where, when people say, “Oh, well you know, mushrooms are involved in the production of penicillin,” for example. Well, penicillin is not a mushroom, it is a fungus and it’s what we’d call an imperfect fungus and yes, indeed, fungi will produce antibiotics and other compounds and they have done that traditionally in fermentation technologies.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: So, it sounds like we’ve come a long way in terms of our ability to cultivate mushrooms. China clearly in the fore, starting in the twelfth century, but we’ve evolved our ability to do this and so wild crafting, we’re not reliant on wild crafting to the same extent.
Jeff Chilton: No, that’s absolutely right. Today, and this is what’s really interesting, is that China produces 85% of the world’s mushrooms, and when you think of that, you think, “Wow. That is pretty incredible that one country is producing that many.” But mushrooms have been part of an Asian tradition for thousands of years as food. In fact, in China, there are at least 12 different mushrooms in the market at any time for food use, and then of course that’s where medicinal mushrooms were put into practice in traditional Chinese medicine. That’s where that tradition comes from, for using mushrooms as medicine.
And just to sort of start here in the sense of I really want people to understand the different stages of what we call a medicinal mushroom, because that’s something that is very, very important, especially to what we’re going to be talking about today. So, we’re talking about a fungal organism and this organism is very specific. It’s what we would call a perfect fungus, which means it’s a fungus that not only grows in a vegetative stage, like that fungus that produces penicillin, but also it produces a perfect stage, which we call a mushroom.
The way this life cycle works of this organism is we have a spore. The spore will land in nature. It will be in the ground, on wood, it will germinate. When multiple spores germinate, they germinate into a very fine filament. They will come together, they will fuse together and form a network. This network of fungal filaments that come from the spore is called mycelium. Mycelium is the vegetative state of the organism. Mycelium is in the ground, it’s in wood, it is out there spreading as far as it can reach nutrients, so as long as it has nutrients it will continue to spread and every year, when conditions are right, like here in the Northwest right now, which is the fall. Temperature’s lower. We get a lot of water and up comes a mushroom, and that’s what we would call a fruiting body.
So, the mycelium is the vegetative body. It’s in a sense the body of this fungal organism, and when conditions are right, it will put up a mushroom, which is the fruiting body. The mushroom stage is very short. The mycelial stage can be perennial, which is why when you talk to a mushroom hunter, they will often say, “Oh, well I’ve got special spots to hunt my mushrooms and I can’t take you there. It’s secret.” Well, what happens is that those mushrooms will come back in the same spot every year as long as there’s food to continue to feed that mycelium. So, we will have a spore that germinates into a filament that multiple filaments come together into a network, which is called mycelium. That can be perennial. The mushroom is formed from that mycelium when conditions are right. That stage may last anywhere from two days to 30 days. It’s a very short stage, and that mushroom, as it matures, it produces spores. Those spores drop down out of the mushroom gills and they complete that life cycle.
When we talk about mushrooms or medicinal mushrooms, we have what I call three main plant parts. We have spores, we have mycelium, and we have mushroom.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: You know, they can sprout. You can move into the mushroom stage like overnight, right? It can be really rapid.
Jeff Chilton: Well, for certain mushrooms, and especially in warm climates. In warm climates, some mushrooms will come up and they will mature in three to four days. I mean, they can come up very quickly. But here’s one of the interesting things about that. Often times we think, “Oh gee, that mushroom came up overnight.” The fact is is that most people, when we’re walking around, we don’t notice the mushroom until it’s actually up and mature. It has to start out as a little tiny primordia and then a button and often times in those stages, we do not see it. It’s amazing how we can walk around and not see the mushrooms all around us, especially small ones, but when it gets big enough, it’s like, “Boy, there’s that mushroom and where did it come from?”
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Yeah, that’s right, and you know, I just wanted to point out one other thing and then we’re going to move on to talk about the medically active components, but the substrate is really important. The food, as you mentioned, I mean, it’s … and I think this has to do with the art of cultivation and the fact that China’s been amazing in this arena is that the substrate, you know, the nutrients they need really can be wildly different. Varying from mushroom to mushroom. Isn’t that correct?
Jeff Chilton: Oh, absolutely. Different mushrooms will utilize different types of substrates, and again, when we talk about substrates, that’s the nutritional, what they’re growing on. That’s what’s providing the nutrition to the mushrooms, and just like for example, when you look at the Button mushroom in the supermarkets, that’s grown on a compost based on straw. The Shiitake mushroom grows on wood, wood logs, or sawdust. And here’s what’s really interesting is that most medicinal mushrooms are wood decomposers, and that substrate is what has the precursors that actually allow that mushroom to produce a lot of those valuable compounds that we’re interested in.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Right. Well, it’s…
Jeff Chilton: …were it not for that substrate, we wouldn’t be, we wouldn’t have those compounds in that mushroom.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Now, for some, isn’t the wood specific? Like it’s not going to grow on all trees equally.
Jeff Chilton: Oh, that’s absolutely right. Yes. In fact, certain mushrooms, certain species will grow on, for example, deciduous trees. It’ll grow on hard woods. Others may grow on soft woods or even like what we have out here, we have a lot of conifers. Certain mushrooms will grow on conifers but they will not grow on hard woods. So yes, the wood is very specific. Of course, there are multiple tree types that are soft woods that that mushroom can grow on, but some mushrooms are very specific to specific species, like, for example, Chaga really prefers birch trees. So, you find Chaga in birch forest, that’s where you would mainly find Chaga, although there are a few other species that are close to that, like beech, that could grow the Chaga, but primarily it grows on birch.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: That’s so interesting. All right, so let’s talk about the medicinal value of the different fungal stages. Just walk me throw all the active compounds and define them and maybe some of what makes them active.
Jeff Chilton: Sure. Well, what’s really interesting about mushrooms is that their cell wall is made up of beta glucan, so 50% of the fungal cell wall is made up of beta glucan. That’s true of both the mycelium and the mushroom, that cell wall 50%, and it varies with species, but it can be, it’s primarily 50% of the cell wall. Now, there’s also a compound in mushrooms called chitin, and chitin is, you think of chitin usually, you think, “Okay, crab shell or something like that.” Well, a crab uses calcium carbonate and other minerals to produce a very hard shell, a mushroom does not, but it has chitin in it, which has a structural carbohydrate and that means that in general, mushrooms are more difficult to digest. They don’t really digest much in our stomach like the beta glucans will pass right through and they will then be do their work in the intestines.
These beta glucans, they are the primary active compounds in all of the medicinal mushrooms, and what’s interesting about a beta glucan, and they’re in all mushrooms, so all mushrooms have beta glucans. But, it is the architecture of that beta glucan, and these are beta 1316, that’s very different from a beta glucan you would find in a cereal grain, which is a beta 1314, so each mushroom will have a specific architecture of beta glucan, and that architecture, how this beta glucan is structured, will be the difference between … Let’s just say a Reishi mushroom that is highly active and some other, like maybe Agaricus mushroom that is less active. So all mushrooms will have a certain amount of activity, but it’s that beta glucan structure that will determine exactly how active that is.
What one has to really know, and this is what scientists have shown us, is that these beta glucans and the specific ones in different mushrooms, they’ve determined that, okay, that means this particular mushroom is very active and has shown that in the tests that they’re doing in all their research.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Let me just, I want to just ask you a few points before we move on. So, the beta glucans differ from mushroom to mushroom and, perhaps, I know that there are some shared medicinal properties that we’ll talk about, but perhaps the unique attributes have to do with the slightly different beta glucan structure mushroom to mushroom, is that true?
Jeff Chilton: Yes, it absolutely is, and one of the ways that they’ve determined that is that a lot of the work with beta glucans has been in anti-tumor studies. That’s really where they focused, and when they’re doing those studies, and most of the studies are either in vitro or in vivo studies, what they found is specific mushrooms have activities that work with certain cancer systems that they’re using. They can specifically note that, “Okay, this mushroom seems to be more active with this type of tumor,” and another mushroom is more active with this other type of tumor, so that’s one of the ways that they’ve determined that a specific mushroom could be more beneficial to a specific cancer.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Okay, and we’ll circle back and talk about that at the end and so forth. Listen, I just wanted to kind of nail you down on what they’re actually doing. I mean, if they bypass digestion in the stomach and do their, and become active in the small, in the intestinal tract, I mean what do you mean? I mean, how are we…
Jeff Chilton: Well, we … You know, it’s really interesting, because we actually have receptor sites for beta glucans in our intestines. And one area, called Peyer’s Patch, is one of the areas that they’ve identified, and so these beta glucan receptor sites are there, when the beta glucans from the mushrooms enter the intestines, reach these sites and these sites are in various locations, they’ll reach the sites and then it’s almost like a lock and key. They’ll hit these receptor sites and then that will stimulate the production of macrophages, NK cells, helper t-cells, so one of the sites that they’ve identified is what’s called Dectin-1, that’s one of the major sites that they’ve identified. That’s actually how they will stimulate our immunity is through the production of increased immune cells.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: And they’re considered biological response modifiers.
Jeff Chilton: Biological response modifiers. It’s a wonderful term. It was actually coined by a man named Dr. Goro Chihara, and he was the Japanese scientist who discovered and actually purified a compound called Lentinan, which is a beta glucan, 1316 beta glucan from Shiitake mushroom, and Shiitake is called, it’s botanical name is Lentinula Edodes, and so he termed this compound Lentinan, and it was developed into an anti-cancer adjuvant in Japan.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Okay, so let’s keep going through the other constituents we want to be thinking about.
Jeff Chilton: Well, mushrooms also have a sterol, which is called ergosterol. We have cholesterol, so its action is very similar in terms of what it does for us as organisms. Ergosterol is interesting because it’s actually pro-Vitamin D, so maybe some people have heard about, yeah, mushrooms have high levels of vitamin D. Not true. Mushrooms do not have high levels. They have actually low levels of vitamin D, but they have ergosterol, which is a precursor. So if you actually expose this precursor…so you expose the mushroom tissue to UV light, that pro-vitamin D will actually turn into vitamin D2. So, you can get vitamin D, D2 again, from a fungal source, which is mushrooms, in fact, a lot of the vitamin D2 that’s out there in the marketplace actually comes from yeast, which is a fungus and yeast actually also has beta 1,3 glucans, and there are yeast beta glucan products out in the market, but ergosterol also has …
Recently, they’ve been looking more at ergosterol. It has some anti-tumor properties, it’s an antioxidant, so it’s a really interesting compound. The other thing about ergosterol, which I use in my work, is that ergosterol, it has been something used by the grain industry for probably 50 years to test grain for fungal contamination.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Oh, interesting.
Jeff Chilton: So, if you are testing a product and it’s got certain levels of ergosterol, the grain people will say, “We have to reject that grain, because there’s too much fungus in this grain,” because that’s one of the things that is really important, I mean there can be Aspergillus, which will produce aflatoxins in grain, so they test and have tested grains all the time for ergosterol, so I use ergosterol as a test. We test all of our product lots for ergosterol, and it tells me the level of fungal matter, so having that ergosterol test is one way to test. If a product doesn’t have ergosterol, there’s no fungal matter in it, just like if a product does not have beta glucans, there is no fungal matter in there. You have to have those compounds in that product to actually be assured that that is a fungal product.
So, ergosterol is a really interesting compound and I use it in our quality control. The other, there are secondary metabolites. Mushrooms produce many different secondary metabolites. Triterpenoids in Reishi, which are the bitter compounds which make Reishi mushroom bitter are triterpenoids. Triterpenoids have been used in China extensively for people with liver problems. Triterpenoids are also antioxidants. They occur in Reishi, they occur in Chaga, a few other, the wood decomposers like Phellinus. Triterpenoids are what, to me, make Reishi a very special mushroom. It has not just a very high level of beta glucans, but it also has very high amount of triterpenoids, so that makes Reishi very special in my opinion.
One of the things that I’ve done through my studies is figured out how much of these compounds occur in different plant parts and that’s one way that I can measure commercial products, including my own, to essentially have a fingerprint. Where I can say, “Okay, here’s the fingerprint. Here’s the quality fingerprint for this product. Beta glucans. Ergosterol. Triterpenoids.” Very important for that.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Yes. Well, I think … Let’s talk about, you know, it’s basically changed my practice after our first conversation. You know, you, as you mentioned earlier, you started applying some of this technology, along with some other analytical technology, to determine the active constituents in mushroom products and I just, you know, you’ve published a white paper and we’re going to make it available on the show notes, so folks, you’ll have access to all of the content we’re mentioning here today or at least links to be able to access it. But it sounds like you’ve always been putting attention to product quality, but then analytically, we’ve leaped forward and some of the tools have evolved and you’re looking at products that we’re routinely prescribing, your products, etc., and just talk to me about that.
Jeff Chilton: Well, in 2012, and the very first analytical methods that we used were actually back in the 1990s, where we were working with a pharmacologist at University of British Columbia and we developed testing methods for Reishi triterpenoids and that was before anybody out there had those methods, were testing for triterpenoids, but we were testing for our extracts. Now, the one thing that we could never get, and we started this back in the 1990s, was testing for the beta glucans. And I actually, in this lab at University of British Columbia, we were looking for a beta glucan method, and the only method out there was a method that not only would find your fungal beta glucans but also cereal beta glucans or any other, so it would be a very broad measure of beta glucans and/or polysaccharides, so there was literally no good method for that.
It’s like, for example, when you’re testing for carbohydrates in food. There is no specific test per se for carbohydrates. It ultimately, the carbohydrate number, comes from after you’ve got all the other numbers together, that carbohydrate number is what’s left. Well, in 2012, I discovered a method for the analysis of fungal beta glucans and this analysis had been there, unbeknownst to me, since 2004. It’s an enzymatic method, and again it is, and it’s produced by a company called Megazyme and this company is the world’s leader in enzyme technologies and the company’s president is an expert in this and has been working on polysaccharides and carbohydrate analysis since the 80s. So this amazing company, great test, I took that beta glucan test and I created or I did a white paper, and this white paper was … I took 40 samples of commercial products that were out on the internet. I had 95 samples in total. 10 of those samples were just dried mushroom, because I used the dried mushroom as my baseline.
Okay, what is it in this dried mushroom that is present? That’s a baseline there. How much beta glucan? How much ergosterol? I also measured many of our mushroom extracts. What I found was that the majority of these commercial products, and let me just say this. These commercial products that I tested were mycelium products, and these mycelium products are produced in a laboratory on sterilized grain, so they’ll sterilize grain in an autoclavable bag. They will inoculate it with a pure culture of whatever mushroom species, the mycelium of that species. They will incubate this bag of grain for 30 to 60 days. Once that grain is fully covered with the mycelium, they will then take the grain covered mycelium, they will dry it and grind it to a powder. Now, they have not removed the grain from that product, and the grain is not even close to being fully consumed, so what we found with these 40 different products that I bought on the internet that were based on myceliated grain, what we found is that they were primarily what’s called alpha glucan, and that’s the beauty of the Megazyme test, because the Megazyme test will give us the amount of beta glucan, but it also gives us alpha glucan.
With this one test, we get to see the beta glucan and the alpha glucans, which are starches. What’s interesting is that a mushroom does not produce starch. In fact, a mushroom, like us, produces glycogen, but the amount of glycogen in that mushroom … Through our testing, we discovered the amount of glycogen is quite low. It’s generally speaking, less than five percent comes up as an alpha glucan in our test for a mushroom or our mushroom extracts, whereas in these myceliated grain products, the alpha glucan or starch came out at anywhere from 30 to 60%. In fact, some of these products were primarily starch, as much as 70 or 80%. It was just the exact opposite of what you’d expect, because with a dried mushroom or our mushroom extracts, we would have a beta glucan level of 25 to 50% and an alpha glucan of less than five percent, whereas with the myceliated grain products, we would have a beta glucan, a mean amount of six percent beta glucan and a level of alpha that was a mean of around 30 to 40%, so it was completely inverted. Low beta glucan, high alpha glucan, which is just the absolute opposite of what you would expect to get in a medicinal mushroom.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Right, so nothing, no medically active compounds present.
Jeff Chilton: Well, this is exactly right.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Or hardly any.
Jeff Chilton: Hardly any, and the fact of the matter is, you know, it’s almost like … The way I look at it, it’s like buying an herbal product that has been put in a carrier, and most carrier materials are polysaccharides. They actually show up in this Megazyme test when we test these products, so you can test a product for maltodextrin or dextrose, so you actually know how much carrier material is in that particular product, so the test just basically pulled the curtain back on all of these different so called mushroom products that were on the market. This is the thing that was really difficult was that these are products that when you look at the front label, the label says, for example, Reishi mushroom. Shiitake mushroom. And then it’ll have a picture of a mushroom, and often times it will have a little gold seal that says, “Made from 100% Organic Mushroom.”
Well, it was not mushroom at all and if you were lucky, when you turned it over in supplements facts panel, maybe, just maybe it would say mycelium and maybe in the other ingredients it would say myceliated rice or myceliated oats. But most people, when they go shopping, are looking for supplements, they look at that front panel and if they see a picture of a mushroom and if it says mushroom, then they think they are getting mushroom. I mean, what do you think of when you think of the word mushroom, Kara?
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: I think of those, you know, those forest critters sprouting out.
Jeff Chilton: Absolutely right. I mean, you know, and those are what have been used traditionally in traditional Chinese medicine. That’s what we use. That’s what a mushroom is. And just to be clear here, too, there’s been a lot of research on mycelium, but when they do their research on mycelium, they’re growing pure mycelium in a laboratory, fractionating it and doing their research on the fractions, so they can … You know, it’s really easy to say, “Oh, well, mycelium’s got medicinal properties.” Yes, it does. Mycelium has beta glucans. It has other properties. It doesn’t have those secondary metabolites that we expect to get from a Reishi or a Chaga, because this mycelium in the lab is not grown on wood, so there has been research on mycelium, but these products are not pure mycelium. These products are actually mostly residual grain and unfortunately, they’re masquerading as mushroom.
In our testing with the beta glucan test, we immediately unmasked them and then the other thing that we did is we tested all of these 95 samples for Ergosterol, which if there is fungal tissue in there, then we will have the normal amount of Ergosterol that we’d expect to find in our dried mushroom. Well, it turned out that most of these products had an Ergosterol level about one tenth of what is in a mushroom, so this was a secondary indicator for us that there was very little fungal tissue in these products.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Well, listen, I want to just back up and kind of clarify a handful of things. From your research, you’re not just pulling … You know, you were not just testing products that one could buy in their neighborhood chain pharmacy. I mean, you were looking at products that us clinicians would be accessing. I mean, you were just looking at the full landscape of products out there. Correct?
Jeff Chilton: Absolutely right, yeah. And you know, we bought these products right off the internet, so they’re in bottles, capsules, we emptied out the capsules, and by the way, these … We didn’t run these tests. We sent these labs off to third party laboratories. And here’s what’s really great about our study. We had a laboratory in Vancouver that could do the Megazyme test, so that’s where most the tests were run, but we also sent duplicate samples of about 20 of these samples to Megazyme itself, just to verify that the lab we were using was performing the test properly and the results lined up perfectly. So we have total confidence in our work with the beta glucans, and then the lab we used for ergosterol was a third party lab out in grain country, out in Minnesota, that does ergosterol testing using HPLC. We used them for our ergosterol.
So it’s not something where, oh yeah, we’re running a test in our own lab and anything like that, and oh yeah, these samples come from wherever. No. The samples that we’re using here, dried mushrooms that were validated dried mushrooms. Bottled products from multiple suppliers, and these suppliers of these bottled products, by the way, there’s about five companies in the United States that produce these products. And here’s the reason why they produce these products, because growing mushrooms is expensive. I can grow mushrooms. I can put them into your market. There, you’ve got your fresh Shiitake, I get five dollars a pound for fresh Shiitake that I’ve grown.
Supplements are dried powders. Mushrooms are 90% water. The minute you dry out that pound of Shiitake, you have to get $50 for that same pound of Shiitake mushroom. The economics simply don’t work, so what people have done in the US is they will grow out this mycelium on grain, which, again, this is a process that’s been around since 1932. It was a process that was began in the United States for producing, actually, believe it or not, for producing mushroom spawn. That’s what that process is all about. There’s nothing special about it. There’s no, you know, a lot of people, “Oh, proprietary process.” No. This thing is easy. You can do it at home with a pressure cooker. You can produce this mushroom spawn. That’s what companies in the United States started to do, because the economics for actually producing a mushroom just didn’t work in the supplement industry.
It worked fine if you wanted to grow mushrooms for food, but you could not do it for supplement use. It just economically did not make sense, and that’s really the unfortunate part about this is that that’s the reason. It’s not because these products are so much better or anything like that or it’s an upgraded product to those old traditional medicinal mushrooms. Not at all. That has nothing to do. The mushroom is what’s been used for thousands of years. That’s what all the research is based upon is the mushroom. The actual fruiting body, and those mushrooms are produced on natural materials that have all the precursors that we’re looking for that can produce these special compounds.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: So, what do we actually need to be looking at on the label? What are, how do we know we’re getting product? Give me, what is it going to say on the label so we know we’re getting true fruiting body? We’re actually getting the mushroom.
Jeff Chilton: Well, the very first thing and the easiest thing to look for, if it says made in America, made in the USA, it is absolutely 95% certain that that product will be myceliated grain.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: And the bulk of that, the vast majority is going to be … have no medicinal activity. It’s starch.
Jeff Chilton:That’s right. That’s absolutely right.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: And incidentally, it’s expensive starch. It’s extremely expensive.
Jeff Chilton: Oh, my God. It’s such an amazingly great business for whoever’s doing it, because it’s very, very cheap to produce these products. I mean, when you’re growing mushrooms, you need an army of people just to harvest those mushrooms and then you’ve got a huge volume that you have to put into dryers and dry them out. Whereas with this, it’s a laboratory process. It’s very simple and at the end, you just grind this dried myceliated grain up and again, our tests show that it’s primarily starch. And there’s a number of other things you can do. Just pour this stuff out of the capsule. Taste it. One of the ones you can really see very well is Reishi. Reishi’s bitter. You taste this Reishi that these companies are selling and it tastes bland. It tastes almost sweet. It has no bitterness to it. Most of those products will be very bland.
In fact, one of the big companies producing those products in the US, they actually, when they’re advertising the product, they say, “Our product will go with everything, because it has a very bland taste and flavor profile. In fact, it doesn’t even taste like mushrooms. Isn’t that great?”
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Right, right, right. Well, listen, I need to ping you questions here, because I just have some more questions and then I want to talk a little bit about concentration, dosing, duration, etc., but okay, so what are the main grain they’re growing this on? What are the main players?
Jeff Chilton: Well, the grains they’re growing it on, a lot of people are growing it on rice, another company grows it on oats and another company will grow it on sorghum grain.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Okay, and this is not necessarily noted on the label, correct?
Jeff Chilton: That is correct. There are some companies who’ll put it on the label, but most companies will not note it on the label.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: So you just simply won’t know that you’ve got a bunch of starch from grain X.
Jeff Chilton: Well, again, if you look for, “Made in USA,” and a lot of companies will put that on there, because one of the things that they do out there, one of the things that especially now, to counter my work, they say, “Not made in China.” Well, the fact of the matter is is that we grow and process all of our mushrooms in China, because that’s really the only place that you can do it and they have tens of thousands of small growers. And as you noted, I went to China in 1997 and took a US organic certifier with me and we had the first organic certification workshop for mushrooms in China in 1997. It’s, all of the mushrooms are certified by a German certifier. We test everything twice. Once before it leaves China, again when it gets over here. That’s a very important part of quality control, but if it says, “Made in the USA,” you pretty much know.
And the other thing people can do, which I love, is the iodine starch test.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Yeah, no listen, I’m going to link to that. I know what you said but I have more questions for you. So, the iodine starch test, folks, we’ll put a link to a YouTube. You can just add your starch to water, throw in some iodine and if it turns black, or you can add your mushroom capsule to water and if it’s all starch..
Jeff Chilton: Yeah, that’s right.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Yeah, I just watched that YouTube video. I appreciated that. So, the taste test is one that’s super easy. Does it taste like a mushroom? Does it smell like a mushroom? And then if you really want to geek out at home with the kids, you can do an iodine starch test, which actually sounds … I’m going to try it. The other thing, I guess I just want to back up and then we’re going to move into talking about the medicinal property … We’re going to talk about some of the top ones, but I just, I’m just curious, how did you miss the Megazyme test? Were they just using this technology elsewhere? I mean, were they looking at mushrooms? How did your paths not cross for a decade? I’m just kind of curious about that.
Jeff Chilton: Well, I have to tell you that from about 2004 till 2012, I really kind of fell asleep. I was kind of like Rip Van Winkle, and I was not paying a lot of attention to my business. I was not that engaged in it. It was doing well. It was not necessarily growing a lot, but that was okay. It was at a level that was fine for me. I didn’t have to work a lot. Company was moving along, so I didn’t really pay a whole lot of attention to what was going on out in the marketplace and in 2012, I kind of woke up and I looked out at the landscape.
I mean, you know, I had stopped doing trade shows. I’d stopped really doing advertising. So I looked at the landscape in 2012 and I went, “Holy smokes, most products out there, maybe,” I mean Kara, it might have been 95% of the products on the market were myceliated grain and I saw that and look, I know from my experience as a mushroom grower, as a mushroom spawn grower, as somebody who’s produced those products. I mean, I was producing a Reishi myceliated grain myself in the 90s, because we couldn’t grind up Reishi mushroom fine enough to put it in a capsule, so I actually grew Reishi mycelium on millet grain and sold it for a while. I let go of that in the early 2000s, because we could all of a sudden get Reishi ground to a fine powder and produced.
But basically, I’d fallen asleep and when I woke up and I saw that, I just thought, “This is the worst thing possible,” because I’ve worked for years and years and years to introduce medicinal mushrooms into the marketplace and here it is, there’s no medicinal mushroom products out there. Very few medicinal products. Instead, most people are getting what I call a facsimile product, and the worst part about it, it was being sold as a mushroom. In other words, playing on the fact that mushrooms were what had been used traditionally, what most of the research was based upon, calling the product mushroom when it was not in any way a mushroom.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: I mean, did you know that you were actually selling starch back in the 90s? Did you know that or…
Jeff Chilton: No, I did not. I did not know that the product was … I mean, we grew it actually for quite a long time, up to 90 days, so we had quite a mass of mycelium, and later on when we analyzed some of my old product, it was actually a fairly good ratio. But no, it was still like up to 30% starch, so no, I thought, “Oh, gee, it’s fine. We got the mycelium there and it’s probably good,” but literally, that was a huge mistake. But that allowed me to certainly … I mean, I have, through my experience, I know how it works. I know how mushrooms are grown. I know how mycelia grain is grown. I’m one of the few people out there in this industry that has that kind of background.
Very few people have any idea of how these products are produced and that’s why it’s so easy and that’s why these products got sold out there, and if you look at the information that some of these companies put out on the internet or with the product, it is so full of misstatements and misinformation and half truths, it was, I mean I couldn’t stand it. I read about these companies. I just, I was really disturbed.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Let me, I just want to circle back and get us on track here, but I want to mention that there’s a handful, there’s some nice peer reviewed articles that you’ve sent me. You’re the author on one of them, but the folks over at Megazyme have published in the Journal of AOAC International in 2016, and these are recent publications demonstrating what Jeff’s talking about today. So we’ll make sure that we put links to the abstracts of those papers on our site.
Jeff Chilton: Oh yeah, you know Kara, those papers were so important, because a lot of companies would just look at it and say, “Oh yeah, there’s just another,” what they say is, “There’s just another company and they’re trying to get a leg up by saying our products are bad and their products are good.” The fact is is that Megazyme itself analyzed, did the same thing. They went through and they bought all these products off the internet. We supplied them with dried mushrooms. They did a study. It was published in a peer reviewed Journal of AOAC International, which was basically … They are the organization that sets the standards for testing, so they essentially validated the Megazyme test and it showed exactly the same thing that we showed.
And then to have United States Pharmocopeia do a study on Reishi where they used 19 samples of Reishi products and only five of 19 actually passed the battery of tests that they did, and here’s what’s interesting about that is that three of the five products that passed were our Reishi extracts.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Oh, okay. Well, I’m sure you were glad to get that.
Jeff Chilton: Well, yes, and you know, well, the fact is is that that was so important because that validated my white paper, which a lot of people were just, “Oh yeah, yeah, that’s just somebody looking for competitive advantage.” No, not at all. That validated what I was saying and I’m trying to wake up the industry and practitioners to the fact of look, you’re using these so called mushroom products on your patients and they’re not mushrooms.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Right. Right. That’s right. That’s right. And we’re using them more and more and we’re using them in conditions that really need the medicinally active constituents. We’re using them routinely in cognitive decline, in autoimmunity. We’re using mushrooms in well, cancer, as you mentioned early. You know, other neurodegenerative conditions and just, we’re using these regularly and wanting to see the kinds of outcomes that we read about in the literature, so this … I think this conversation has been really important.
Now, one of the things you and I talked about offline, and this is going to just take us home. We’ll finish this conversation and then perhaps circle back and have a whole conversation on how to use these in practice. I mean, I think a clinical discussion on the use of medicinal mushrooms is important, but we’re out of time at this point. But there’s a strength using whole mushroom, using mushroom powder, and then extracts, and the strength can rise exponentially when you’re using different extract strengths. So, just talk a little bit about that and then we’ll close.
Jeff Chilton: Okay, well the way I look at it is that a just a straight mushroom, you can eat that mushroom. It doesn’t digest well. You’ll get benefits from it and I tell people eat mushrooms, put it in their diet, you will get benefits from it. But what we do with our products is we’ll do what we call our entry level let’s say is called a one-to-one extract, where we’ll take those dried mushrooms, we’ll grind them to a powder, we’ll put them in very large tanks. We’ll cook them at 80 degrees C for three hours. Then we will concentrate the fluid down to where it’s more of a syrupy, it will still have that mushroom powder in it. We will send it to the spray dryer. It will end up being a fine powder. That is a one kilo in, one kilo out product, but what we like about that product is that we have predigested the mushroom powder. The mushroom, also because it is a powder, we’ve ground it up so that you have a lot more surface area there, and I think that’s important for a lot of products. So that’s what we would basically, again, be sort of like an entry level product for us.
But then we also produce extracts where they are higher concentration. Maybe a four to one, eight to one, 10 to one. We have a Reishi extract that’s a 16 to one. In those extracts, we would be cooking the mushroom three times in water. One of those times, if it’s a Reishi or something that has triterpenoids, we’d use water alcohol in one of those cooks. At that point, we’d feel like the fiber has been completely, sucked everything out of that fiber. One of the things that is very important for people to know is that we want that extract to be as close to the profile of the initial material as possible, so with our more concentrated extracts, we are extracting them the three times. We are then, you can’t get 16 kilos into one kilo, so at that point we will filter out the fiber and we consider the fiber to be inert at that point in time, but we’re not trying to build up any one particular component.
We want to have that profile of everything, every constituent, we want that to be in there. Now, it won’t always be perfect as you concentrate, but we’re not … A lot of people try to confuse by saying, “Oh yeah, they’re just trying to build up this one and they’re leaving behind all this other.” That’s not what we do. There maybe are some herbs out there where that’s done and that’s important. That’s not what we do with our extracts. We want them to be in the pretty much as close to the original profile of that mushroom as possible.
And you know, the thing about … Remember this about the mushroom beta glucans. Most of the research has shown that it’s the soluble beta glucans that have the activity. They say, a lot of the top Japanese researchers say that the insoluble beta glucans are not active. I’m not so sure, that’s where I think that our one-to-one extract with the fiber still in there, there still may be activity beta glucan-wise with that insoluble fiber, because there are a lot of insoluble beta glucans in that mushroom, but as we concentrate them, what you’re going to be getting is much higher concentration of the soluble beta glucans. Not the insoluble ones.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald: Okay. All right. Well, really important discussion. I’m sure, you know, we put a lot of energy in as clinicians. We’re dialoguing about product quality all of the time, and we really do the best we can to make sure we vet the companies that we are using to prescribe to our patients, and I think today is going to be a real eye opener for many of us and I look forward, folks, to hearing what you think about it. Be sure to shoot me an email, and again, we will have links to the publications and Jeff’s white paper on the show notes.
Jeff, thank you so much for joining me today.
Jeff Chilton: My pleasure Kara, thanks for having me.
Dr. Kara Fitzgerald:: And that wraps up another amazing conversation with a great mind in functional medicine. I am so glad that you could join me. None of this would be possible, through the years, without our generous, wonderful sponsors, including Integrative Therapeutics, Metagenics, and Biotics. These are companies that I trust, and I use with my patients, every single day. Visit them at IntegativePro.com, BioticsResearch.com, and Metagenics.com. Please tell them that I sent you and thank them for making New Frontiers in Functional Medicine possible.
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