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How mushrooms took over food, wellness, and (of course) drugs

Welcome to the mushroom renaissance.

A photo of 12 white mushrooms on an orange background, arranged in a 3 by 4 pattern.
From mushroom-based protein powder to psychedelics, the era of Big Shroom is upon us.
Getty Images

The anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing believes humans have a lot to learn from mushrooms. In the prologue of her book The Mushroom at the End of the World, Tsing explores how mushrooms are capable of thriving even in conditions of precarity; she remarks that when she encounters one in the woods, she realizes “the good fortune of just happening to be there.”

In 2021, mushrooms are experiencing a curious renaissance in the American consciousness, just as we approach the tail end of a devastating pandemic. And much like a forest after the rain, mushrooms seem to be suddenly, silently sprouting up everywhere — and we no longer necessarily need good fortune to encounter them. On Instagram, wellness influencers are peddling mushroom-based protein powder, coffee alternatives, and elixirs. Local grocery stores and farmers markets are selling not just whole mushrooms but also mushroom jerky, burger patties, chips, and even adaptogenic syrup.

Mushrooms have been championed as viable leather alternatives for trendy bags and used in biodegradable packaging. Their adorable blob-shaped bodies have served as inspiration for one of the of-the-moment home trends, the mushroom lamp based on the 1970s Murano design. And then there are psychedelic mushrooms, which have enjoyed ever-more-mainstream popularity over the past few years.

Of course, mushrooms have been around longer than a list of recent trends can capture. For millennia, mushrooms have been foraged, cooked, eaten whole, steeped into teas, used as remedies, and applied medicinally, among many other use cases invented by indigenous people and cultures, from Asia to Latin America. The capped, fleshy fungi (of which there are tens of thousands of species) are capable of growing in various natural habitats: forests, parks, meadows, gardens, and even places suffering from ecological destruction.

Mushrooms have a versatile, resilient history. But while they have occupied a central role in food, medicinal, and religious traditions worldwide, they haven’t exactly been at the forefront of Western culture. Medicinal mushrooms were considered “an eclectic science” among scientists and doctors in the West for decades. Researchers Paul Stamets and Heather Zwickey offered an explanation for this dismissal, despite mushrooms’ ancient medicinal roots: “That some mushrooms can feed you, some can heal you, some can kill you, and some can send you on a spiritual journey speaks of their diverse chemical constituents. From an evolutionary and survival point of view, it is safer to avoid that which is poorly understood yet so powerful.” Existing out of sight and out of mind, mushrooms spent decades slipping into relative obscurity.

So why the resurgence now? Is it simply that it was time for the ubiquitous fungi to get their moment in the sun, after the wellness-industrial complex had exhausted so many other lesser-known ingredients? Not quite: While the shroom boom is a multifaceted and hard-to-trace phenomenon, a number of factors have made this the ideal time for its ascension. Mushrooms’ extreme versatility; the pandemic driving people outdoors, resulting in a more back-to-nature interest in foraging; the passage of laws decriminalizing psychedelics in states like Oregon; and the pleasing, organic aesthetic of the fungi itself have all resulted in a moment where it’s hard to ignore the humble shroom.

Americans are eating more mushrooms, about three pounds per person per year, and consumption has increased each year since 2013. According to Britt Bunyard, the editor-in-chief of Fungi Magazine and director of the Telluride Mushroom Festival, there has been a marked increase in foraging over the past decade — for wild foods, berries, and mushrooms — in general.

The pandemic has only exacerbated this interest: Last year, a record number of Americans visited national parks and spent vacation time in the great outdoors, escaping the once-crowded centers of city life. People were not just camping, Bunyard said, based on his foraging experiences: They also began searching for mushrooms. Fungi Magazine saw a “dramatic uptick in subscribers” from all over the world last year, which befuddled Bunyard, since it’s a small trade publication.

Bunyard has no unifying theory that neatly chronicles this resurgent interest in mushrooms in the West; like many trends, it’s a reflection of our “unprecedented times.” Under the circumstances of the pandemic, it’s possible that this newfound love is born out of a desire to be self-sustaining and practical by growing (and regrowing) one’s food.

Urban dwellers unlikely to casually encounter mushrooms in nature are able to grow their own mushrooms through prepackaged kits, or purchase their own mushroom-shaped lamps and footstools. It’s a real-life application of “cottagecore,” the digital aesthetic movement devoted to fetishizing the countryside and bucolic lifestyles.

The popularity of cottagecore dovetailed with the quarantine ennui from spending most of our days indoors. As we approach a summer that’s predicted to be “a cross between the Roaring ’20s and the Summer of Love,” our home interiors reflect this anticipation. The popularity of the blobject and other mushroom-like furnishings makes our living spaces appear more comforting, a gentle touch to soften the harsh, minimalist edges of the 2010s.

These whimsical, amorphously shaped designs also evoke a sense of simmering chaos, reminiscent of the psychedelic interior trends of the 1960s and ’70s. We are simultaneously nostalgic for the past and eager for the future. Mushrooms, in many ways, reflect cottagecore’s romantic essence: the glorification of nature, indulged through foraging, gardening — or embarking on a hallucinogenic trip.

Journalist Michael Pollan’s 2018 bestselling book How to Change Your Mind, according to Bunyard, sparked mainstream acceptance toward psychedelic use. Even Americans who scorned recreational drug use were, at the very least, intrigued. “Everyone started asking me about psychedelics after Pollan’s book came out,” Bunyard told me. “It’s really changed how people understand their history and how these substances came to be banned in the 1970s.”

Within the past five years, the Food and Drug Administration has steadily granted breakthrough therapy status to drugs that were banned in the 1970s and ’80s, like MDMA, ketamine, and psilocybin. This designation has allowed organizations to develop drugs and pursue clinical trials on the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs. In November, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, following in the footsteps of cities like Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz in 2019. In mid-March, Oregon’s governor announced that the state will form a Psilocybin Advisory Board, which will establish a framework for the drug’s therapeutic use in licensed facilities.

Beyond state-approved and research-based psilocybin use, regular people, too, have developed a fantastical interest in the drug — for its healing capabilities and power to transcend reality. How could they not? It’s a fungus straight out of a fairy tale. Shroom trips are documented to be vivid out-of-body experiences, bordering on the realm of the mystical.

“It seemed as though I was viewing a world of which I was not a part and with which I could not hope to establish contact,” wrote R. Gordon Wasson in a widely read 1957 Life magazine article on magic mushrooms. “There I was, poised in space, a disembodied eye, invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen.”

Even in monitored clinical settings, participants have “profoundly meaningful experiences.” And while full-dose trips incapacitate people for hours at a time, microdosing — taking tiny amounts of psychedelics to stimulate a subtle buzz — has gained steam in certain circles, particularly among techies and creatives.

There is a current race to patent psychedelics through for-profit ventures led (unsurprisingly) by Silicon Valley. Peter Thiel, among many other angel investors, has backed Compass Pathways and ATAI Life Sciences, biotech companies that are developing psychedelic and non-psychedelic mental health treatments. ATAI is worth $2 billion after its latest round of funding in early March, and Compass Pathways went public last year, although it has been scrutinized for looking to patent basic aspects of psychedelic therapy.

The for-profit psychedelic field, as Vice’s Shayla Love explained, is “trying to patent ‘novel’ uses to build profitable patent libraries.” Some psychedelic advocates have disavowed this for-profit approach, arguing that some of these patents are privatizing information already in the public domain.

Meanwhile, there’s a bubbling cottage industry of guided “therapy” clinics and pricey psilocybin retreats for those who wish to experience psychedelics around trained professionals, even while these drugs remain illegal in most parts of the US. Vox’s Sean Illing previously attended such a session in San Diego, writing: “This new world of psychedelic-assisted therapy functions as a kind of parallel mental health service. Access to it remains limited, but it’s evolving quicker than you might expect.”

This renaissance in psychedelic research and therapy also coincides with the rise of the 21st-century wellness movement. It has, for better or worse, reignited belief in these alternative practices. The pandemic has only further commodified self-care, and niche wellness products, brands, and marketable “experiences” have proliferated alongside our health-adjacent anxieties. There’s money to be made from all kinds of mushrooms, not just the hallucinogenic ones.

The psychedelic craze, according to Bunyard, overshadowed the usefulness of fungi like chaga, lion’s mane, and reishi, which have become key ingredients in dietary supplements and meat substitutes. The global mushroom market (which excludes psilocybin mushrooms) is expected to be worth more than $50 billion by 2025, according to the market research firm Grand View Research.

Andrea Hernández, a food and beverage trend analyst and author of the Snaxshot newsletter, attributes the shroom boom to the “Goop-ification of niche vegetables and fungi.” Mushrooms are a gold mine, given their versatility: Different types of mushrooms boast various vitamins or health benefits, and their chewy texture allows them to thrive on the alternative market as substitutes for coffee, juice, and meat. Given how the meat industry’s supply chain was briefly jolted by the pandemic, the alternative meat market has seen an uptick in consumer interest and venture capital investment. Mushrooms have certainly benefited from this explosion of plant-based products, but it’s uncertain whether most Americans will ever commit fully to a meatless diet.

Regardless, mushrooms are special. They have been elevated to the coveted superfood category, an “it” ingredient to be extracted, transformed, and commodified into all sorts of trendy wellness products, such as protein powders, supplement pills, coffee alternatives, beer, and other millennial-branded beverages and tinctures. (There’s a great comprehensive list in this TASTE article about the shroom boom.) They’ve become mainstays in the direct-to-consumer food world through brands like Pan’s mushroom jerky, and attracted the attention and investments of established consumer packaged goods brands.

From a nutritional standpoint, mushrooms are generally good for you; they’re low in calories, rich in protein and fiber, and high in antioxidants. The claims marketed in these various shroom-based products, however, are hard to prove. Some beverages (mushroom beer) and snacks are entirely made from mushroom powder or extracts, while others (MUDWTR, a coffee alternative) advertise the shroom label while mixing in other herbs and spices.

Hernández worries that this vague, buzzy language could turn off customers and lead to backlash, distrust, or derision toward such products, much like CBD. “There are brands who say ‘Your sheets have CBD,’ or ‘This athleisure wear has CBD,’ and that usage creates a bad reputation for the term, similar to how ‘organic’ has little meaning to most consumers nowadays,” Hernández said. “We’re going to need curation and guidance, so that this attention doesn’t hurt the food and beverage makers who are putting a lot of thought into their products.”

If history is any indication, though, our cultural intrigue and reverence toward mushrooms will likely supersede the marketing efforts bolstered by wellness brands. Mushrooms are ubiquitous, and they remain elusive, growing in unexpected parts of forests, among dead and decaying trees and organisms. “Maybe we are drawn to mushrooms because we think of them as some higher power,” Hernández said. It’s one theory. Mushrooms offer a promise of transcendence, a small template for living and dying in a precarious world.

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