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October 16, 2020 6 min read

If you’re reading this, it’s most likely because you are interested in taking mushroom based supplements, and have discovered there are two main offerings - powdered mushrooms, and extracts. This article is here to help you know the difference between the two, and which one you should take for the most possible benefit - whether that be for nutritional reasons or because you are looking into adaptogenic lifestyles. 


First, let’s go over what exactly mushroom powders and mushroom extracts are, how they’re processed, and differences between them.


Powder: Powders can be composed of only the mushroom fruiting body that was cut off at the base, or the whole mushroom uprooted from its substrate (although certain mushroom species that have small fruiting bodies may have all of the substrate included with it). All the ingredients in the mushroom, as well as the mushroom fibers, survive relatively unchanged, given that the drying process occurs at moderate temperatures (lower than 40°C). Since more ingredients of the mushroom survive when being processed this way, powders have a broader spectrum of activity that is not as useful when taken for the desire of a specific effect. They do however keep nearly all of their nutrients intact - this does make powders more useful for those seeking to take mushrooms for nutritional reasons, such as vegans wanting to ensure they get a good source of protein and B vitamins in their diet. Caution should be taken when consuming powders from certain mushrooms however, as the drying process can leave higher amounts of certain toxins that while in low doses wouldn’t be harmful, can become harmful in higher amounts or possibly accumulatory. This is only true of a few subset of mushrooms though, normally rarer and more expensive ones, such asCordyceps Sinensis (Not to be confused with the fully edibleCordyceps Militaris), and powders made from more common and edible varieties should be of no concern.


Extract: The main appeal and benefits of extracts are two: better control over which elements remain in the final product, and very high yields of Beta-Glucans. Beta-Glucans can be up to 15 times more concentrated depending on the kind of mushroom in extracts when compared to powders. This is due to the long-term cooking extracts go through, which depending on the cooking method and mushroom, cause  certain substances (and especially beta-glucans) to become eluted from the cellular matrix and therefore much more readily available and easier to absorb through digestion. Although this varied processing procedure causes specific contents (including many vitamins and minerals) to be lost, the main purpose is to have others, such as fungal polysaccharides, to become extremely concentrated instead, along with any other compounds of the mushroom which may have possible benefits. This does also mean that extracts are usually dosed lower than powders, since their elements are so highly concentrated by comparison. Extracts can also be safer to take (as long as the extract is done properly, so ensure any extracts you take come from a reputable/reliable source) than powders usually, since many cytotoxic compounds, along with other mild toxins certain mushrooms can have, are typically eliminated and/or destroyed during processing.


The Beta-Glucans of Mushrooms

Beta-Glucans are complex sugars (polysaccharides) found in the cell walls of various single cellular and multicellular organisms such as fungi, yeasts, algae, and cereal grains. Although beta-glucans can be found in all these sources, their physical chemical properties vary greatly depending on the source. Normally, beta-glucans, such as those found in cereals, help lower cholesterol by binding to it in the digestive tract. Beta-Glucans that are found in fungi, however, cause a different effect when taken due to the differing short branching structure in its chemistry. They are insoluble in water, unlike the kind derived from cereals, and therefore tend to actually be metabolized by the body.[1] This is an important difference, as there is some evidence that when metabolized by the body, they strengthen the immune system by enhancing macrophage response times and alertness.[2]


Powder Vs Extract

If you’re seeking to maximize the amount of beta-glucans you are taking, without a doubt what you’ll want is an extract. As covered previously, extracts contain up to 15 times more beta-glucans than powders, and are much more easily absorbable due to no longer being bound to the rest of the mushroom. Extracts also typically contain a very high amount of novel antioxidants in comparison to powders, which help combat the negative effects of oxidative stressors (the primary cause of increased ageing in cells).[3]


Another main reason you may want to pick an extract over a powder is because extracts contain less impurities, which is important if you are choosing to take mushroom supplements for a particular effect, whether adaptogenic or not. 


On the other hand, depending on the kind of mushroom and the manufacturer, powders can also often contain high amounts of fillers which offer no benefits. This is because the main filler (typically composed of rye barley or rice) that is used is the difficult-to-separate growth medium of the mushroom, as well as being normally too depleted to continue to grow new mushrooms - and in some cases it is impossible to harvest and powder the mushroom without including it, since the fruiting body is too small to efficiently remove independently from the mycelium, which itself is attached throughout the growth medium. High quality powders made of mushrooms with large fruiting bodies however typically contain no fillers, as it is easier to harvest only the fruiting body, and the manufacturer will simply add fresh new feedstock to the growth medium so as to keep the current mycelium alive so it’ll produce more mushrooms.


So you may be wondering at this point “why are fillers so bad if they contain the mycelium anyway?”. Well, the truth is it’s not necessarily abadthing in and of itself. The problems are that


  1. Mycelium frequently is counted along with the total amount of mushroom fruiting body you get from the powder, even though the two are not the same.
  2. Pill / dose burden increases since you have to take many pills or a lot of powder for desired benefits.
  3. The mycelium doesn’t contain most of the nutrients of the mushroom, and is less studied and understood in relation to possible health benefits compared to the fruiting bodies of the mushroom.

So does that mean you should always pick extracts over powders then? Well not necessarily. Powders do still contain more nutrients than extracts, since they are minimally processed, and if you are just seeking to get a good vegan source of B-Vitamins and proteins, then powders can be your friend (unless you really love eating mushrooms anyway, in which case you can just include them in your diet in a minimally cooked fashion anyhow). They also may contain a wider range of beneficial compounds that are likely to be eliminated in extracts - although this is only speculation, since these would be compounds still yet to be studied / discovered by researchers. They would also be in very small quantities which may, at best, only offer a slight adaptogenic benefit, if that.


Conclusion

Overall, extracts tend to be better than powders when it comes to taking mushroom supplements for certain desired effects, as powders often contain too little of the compound readily available for your metabolism to easily absorb. This is especially true if you want to take mushroom supplements for the express purpose of getting as many fungal beta-glucans as possible. Powders are best used if you have a primarily plant based diet since they’ll add nutrients that are more difficult to get from other vegetables and fruits. You can of course get the benefits of both by taking supplements which contain both extracts and powders mixed together, which is actually something done by a wide range of manufacturers.

 

References:

1: Manzi, P. (2000). Beta-glucans in edible mushrooms.Food Chemistry, 68(3), 315-318. doi:10.1016/s0308-8146(99)00197-1

2: Akramienė, D., Kondrotas, A., Didžiapetrienė, J., & Kėvelaitis, E. (2007). Effects of ß-glucans on the immune system. Medicina, 43(8), 597. doi:10.3390/medicina43080076


3: Park, J., Lee, J., Lee, K., Ha, S., & Hong, E. (2014). Cordyceps militaris Extract Protects Human Dermal Fibroblasts against Oxidative Stress-Induced Apoptosis and Premature Senescence. Nutrients, 6(9), 3711-3726. doi:10.3390/nu6093711


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