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As you dive into looking for the best functional mushroom supplements, you may feel a bit in over your head. After all, mushrooms are diverse, intelligent organisms that serve as a building block for almost every ecosystem on earth.
If that sounds like too much responsibility for a little mushroom, its probably because you are unfamiliar with the mushroom’s mycelium, a vast ecological network of cell-signaling filament that spans underfoot, connecting up to 90% of the earth’s plants in a sort of plant-food-chain.
Confused? No worries. There’s a lot to unpack about functional mushrooms that spans far beyond the cute little stem-and-cap mushrooms you’re probably familiar with.
We’ll break down the differences in the mushroom mycelium vs fruiting body and how supplements made from each part of the mushroom perform to help you finally decide which is best for you. Let’s jump in:
Table of Contents
What is the Mushroom’s Fruiting Body
What is the Mushroom’s Mycelium?
Comparing the Fruiting Body vs Mycelium
Which Supplement is Best?
How to Choose Quality Mushroom Supplements
Conclusion: Are Fruiting Body vs Mycelium Supplements Best?
The fruiting body of the mushroom is portion of the mushroom that most people think of as “the mushroom” – the stem and cap, as well as the gills, skirt, and other portions attached to the stem and cap. The fruiting body is the portion of the mushroom that you’ll find in the supermarket.
Aside from being the iconic place marker for what most people think of as a mushroom, the fruiting body serves an important function for the mushroom–it fruits. In other words, the stem, cap, gills, and other portion of the mushroom that grows above ground is responsible for carrying out reproductive tasks. Specifically, the fruiting body is responsible for releasing mushroom spores that travel through the air until they reach a suitable substrate where they germinate into a single strand of single-cell tissue, known as the “hypha.” Together, hyphae grow through the substrate to produce an interconnecting system called a mycelium.
The mycelium is the portion of the mushroom that grows beneath the surface, deep into the mushroom’s substrate. Typically, the mycelium is not visible above ground like the fruiting body, and most people don’t associate this diverse system of mushroom “roots” with the common mushroom.
Nonetheless, all mushrooms have a diverse mycelium beneath the surface that carries out crucial functions. Just like the roots of plants, the mycelium is the “feeding” portion of the mushroom. It feeds on plant matter, and especially starches or grains, during the vegetative portion of a mushroom life cycle.
The mycelium continue to expand in a dendritic pattern, meaning a pattern that resembles a branched tree, in search of nutrients and water. Eventually they will reach another compatible mycelium and fuse together, swapping nuclei. A mycelium with two sets of nuclei is capable of sexual reproduction, so, under the right environmental conditions, it will grow a fruiting body that will release spores.
This may make the mycelium seem much like the roots of a plant, but remember, mushrooms are not plants. In fact, these organisms are incredibly diverse and advanced.
Mushrooms mycelium are known to have over 30,000 different sexes, can expand under the earth’s surface for miles (the largest known mushroom mycelium covers nearly 3.5 square miles), and even form symbiotic relationships with plants. This interconnecting network, known as the “mycorrhizal network,” helps plants transfer water, nitrogen, and other essential nutrients beneath the ground.
Mushroom mycelium also have an immune system of sorts. It can release enzymes into the substrate in order to prevent pathogens and competing organisms from damaging the fruiting bodies. In some ways, the mushroom mycelium operates similarly to the human nervous system. Either way, because the mycelium makes up more than 90% of the total mass of the mushroom, it can’t be overlooked.
To learn more, read "Stages of Mushroom Growth: What Growers and Consumers Should Know."
As you can see, there’s much more to a mushroom than its cap, gills, and stem. The question is–do fruiting bodies really make the best supplements? And how does the mushroom mycelium apply to using mushrooms as supplements and food? Let’s take a look at some of the key differences in these two major mushroom parts:
At the core, you can think of it like this: the fruiting body is the reproductive portion of the mushroom, while the mycelium is the functional structure that gives the fruiting body life. The fruiting body is generally the part that is cooked and consumed, but with mushroom supplementation becoming more common, the mycelium is being used more often.
The fruiting body and the mycelium are two parts of the same whole, but the growing process for supplements made from the mycelium vs the fruiting body is much different.
To start, mycelium is added to a “grain spawn” material, which may be wood, sawdust, oats, wheat, rye, or rice. The mycelium may be allowed to grow for a few weeks before it is harvested and milled up, usually with much of the grain material still attached, into a mycelium supplement. As you can imagine, these are simple to produce, but they are usually a much more degraded product, containing only some mushroom material and a lot of starch.
When the fruiting bodies are grown, the mycelium is added to the grain material and allowed to culture. Then, this substrate is formed into blocks and exposed to the correct environmental conditions (moisture, warmth, and oxygen) to force fruiting bodies to grow. These fruiting bodies take longer to grown, but they are already isolated upon harvest. That means that the supplements made from the fruiting bodies are already more concentrated by nature.
Despite that mycelium supplements are sometimes referred to as a “bag of oats,” there’s still some argument about whether the mycelium contains unique and important nutritional and therapeutic compounds.
On one hand, the mycelium is the “life-giving” portion of the mushroom that’s responsible for its immune functions. The mycelium literally gives and sustains the fruiting body’s life, protecting it from pathogens with its immune system. For that reason, proponents of mycelium supplementation believe that mycelium has more immune regulating capabilities than just the fruiting body alone. Research has confirmed that both the mycelium and the substrate it’s grown in (which becomes biologically active during the cultivation process) can trigger immune functions. However, this research looks only at the mycelium and the fermented rice substrate that it’s grown in, and it does not compare the activity of the mycelium to that of the fruiting bodies.
Of course, proponents of supplements made only from the fruiting body make a different point–fruiting bodies contain more beta-glucans than the mycelium. Beta-glucans are the biologically active polysaccharide that most people attribute all of a mushroom’s health benefits to. Fruiting bodies do, in fact, usually contain a beta-glucan content of around 30 to 40 %, while the beta-glucan content of the mycelium is much lower–around 5-7 %.
However, it’s incorrect to say that beta-glucans are the only immunologically active compounds in the mushroom. Mushrooms, including the fruiting body and the mycelium, also contain an array of other polysaccharides, glycoproteins, triterpenes, proteins, and other compounds that carry out specific roles as enzymes, antioxidants, nerve growth factors, and other crucial functions.
Okay, let’s get to the point–are mycelium supplements or fruiting body supplements better? Generally speaking, supplements made from the fruiting body are cleaner, more pure, and contain a higher concentration of the therapeutic compounds that mushrooms are known for.
Sure, mycelium is the “life giving” portion of the mushroom and is a crucial part of the process used to grow and create mushroom supplements. But saying that the mycelium is a necessary part of a mushroom supplement is like saying that the dirt, root, and tree bark is a necessary part of eating an apple.
However, choosing a high-quality mushroom supplement is the most important factor in whether you will experience true benefits–and not all mushroom supplements are safely and responsibly made, regardless of which part of the mushroom they contain.
Before you can dig in to a functional mushroom supplementation routine, you need to understand how to choose a high quality mushroom supplement. That starts with determining whether you want a whole mushroom powder or an extract. Let’s break down the difference between the two and touch on some other deciding factors you should consider when buying functional mushroom supplements.
There’s plenty of confusion between mushroom powders and mushroom extract powders, but the difference is really simple–whole mushroom powder is made by dehydrating and grinding whole mushrooms. It includes all of the mushroom’s nutritional and therapeutic compounds in similar ratios to what’s available in the whole mushroom.
However, since beta-glucans and other therapeutic compounds are locked in the mushroom’s chitin layers, whole mushroom powder is not very bioavailable. The human body does not digest chitin very well, so the bioactive compounds are not easy for the body to utilize.
An extract is made through a different process that involves extracting the mushroom’s therapeutic compounds through a series of hot water and alcohol extractions. This unlocks the therapeutic compounds from the chitin. Then, the liquid extract is dried into a powder. That means that an extract powder contains a more concentrated amount of beta-glucans and triterpenes that are already activated and ready to be absorbed by the body.
Mushroom extract supplements are the best way to take advantage of the mushroom’s superfood qualities and adaptogenic qualities.
If you’re looking for a product that is made from either the fruiting body and want to avoid grain-filled mycelium products, start by checking the label.
Sometimes, the product will be forthcoming about its composition. However, it’s not always that clear cut, and you may need to dig a little deeper to understand the true composition of the product you’re looking to buy.
For instance, some companies will market their product as “full spectrum,” a term that is unregulated and has no true definition when it comes to mushroom supplements. This term usually implies that the mushroom supplement contains both the fruiting body and the mycelium, but it makes no clear claims about how much of each portion is included. Be careful of mycelium products that could contain a large portion of starch, which is the growing medium used to produce mycelium products.
These products may also be labeled to contain “myceliated grain and biomass,” meaning grain that is intermingled with the mycelium, a process that is believed to make the grain bioactive. Still, you’re getting a product that is mostly made of fermented grain and contains only a very small beta-glucan content, if any at all.
If you want a product with just fruiting bodies, that should be indicated on the label. If not, check the beta-glucan content. A higher beta-glucan content is the primary difference between a mycelium and fruiting body supplement.
Before you choose a supplement, here are some thing you may consider when looking at the label:
For more help, read this Health-Conscious Consumer Guide to Buying Mushroom Coffee.
The mushroom’s fruiting body is it stem, cap, and gills, while the mycelium is the diverse signaling system that spans under ground and supports the fruiting body’s life.
However, adding the mycelium to a mushroom supplement is similar to tossing the roots and tree bark into a bag of apples–these parts are used to grow the mushroom, but they aren’t necessary to reap the mushroom’s benefits. Plus, mycelium products usually contain a large amount of the grain or growing medium they are cultured in, so you’re really paying for a “bag of oats” when buying myceliated products.
A product made from 100% fruiting bodies is going to be higher-quality with a more potent beta-glucan content. Still, making sure that you grab a high-quality, organically produced, lab tested product is the best way to ensure that you reap the most benefits from your functional mushroom regimen.
Whether you’re digging into chaga, lion’s mane, reishi, or looking for a superfood mix of functional mushrooms, you’re taking a big step towards total body wellness by making these fantastic fungi part of your daily routine.
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