Room for improvement: functional foods

14 November 2018

Functional foods are all the rage right now, but mushrooms are further blurring the lines between food and medicine, as a report by GlobalData explains.

Functional mushrooms, sometimes called medicinal mushrooms, are a superfood claimed to have medicinal and nutritional benefits. They are edible fungi rich in essential nutrients, as well as bioactive compounds that are said to enhance health and wellness. Going beyond traditional health remedies, functional mushrooms are gaining appeal as a superfood ingredient in a diverse array of food and drinks, as well as skin and haircare products.

A fresh, healthy and natural ingredient for functional food, drinks and cosmetics, functional mushrooms are nutritionally dense ingredients that meet the growing consumer demand for fresh, natural and clean foods. Consumers are seeking natural solutions to address health issues, including the management of diseases and disorders. Functional mushrooms also offer a natural alternative for several synthetic ingredients, paving the way for cleaner cosmetics.

Businesses and brands that use them can capitalise on their potential as a natural ingredient to meet targeted health needs, such as stress management and vitality.

What are the health benefits?

Growing awareness about the link between diet and health is motivating consumers to consider what goes into the food and drinks they consume. Wary of chemical additives and preservatives in food, these consumers are reaching for healthier options. Indeed, 90% of consumers globally claim to find food and drink products that are naturally high in nutrients appealing. Additionally, two thirds of global consumers say that they are interested in, and are actively buying, natural food and drink products.

Consumers can incorporate nutritionally dense foods into their regular diet in order to fill the gaps in nutrients left by their usual food and drink intake. Functional mushrooms, such as reishi, cordyceps, maitake and shiitake are gaining recognition as superfoods, which many consumers believe can deliver greater health benefits than ordinary health foods.

Despite the remarkable progress made by medical science, infectious diseases like influenza and prevalent disorders such as diabetes remain a global concern. With medical advances extending life expectancy, consumers are keen on staying as healthy as possible for as long as they can. Against the backdrop of the high cost of healthcare, consumers are trying to ward off or alleviate diseases through healthy food, drinks and supplements, instead of depending solely on medicines. Accordingly, 54% of global consumers are in agreement that food or drinks can provide the same, or greater, health benefits as non-prescription medications. For instance, ingredients abundant in health-promoting substances, such as antioxidants, are being perceived as a natural way to build up immunity and reduce the risk of certain diseases.

Maitake, shiitake, reishi and cordyceps contain over 1,000 bioactive chemicals that boost energy; enhance immunity; improve the health of the heart, liver, lungs, bones and joints; and even inhibit tumours and cancers. Globally, 62% of consumers say that their choice of food products is always or often influenced by its impact on their health and wellness. The proclaimed benefits of functional mushrooms go beyond disease management. Clinical studies have shown that snow fungus, reishi and lion’s mane are natural nootropics with the capability to improve memory and cognition, and even elevate mood. Growing awareness about these medicinal and therapeutic benefits of functional mushrooms may motivate consumers to make these edible fungi a part of their regular diets in the form of raw foods, or nutrition and health supplements.

Hectic lifestyles, and the pressures of work, family and society, are sapping energy and elevating stress levels in daily life. Recognition of stress as a contributing factor for several health problems is motivating consumers to regain their mind and body balance through diet, exercise and mediation. Globally, 75% of consumers are concerned about stress, while 50% are actively buying or would consider buying products that address this stress. Additionally, 86% of global consumers agree that reducing stress would be effective in making them look younger, while 82% are interested in food and drink that improves their appearance. These factors are driving global consumer interest in adaptogens, a class of plant-based compounds that help the body in attaining balance, and adapting to various biological and environmental stresses.

Consumers are increasingly conscious of their health and appearance, with 78% of global consumers claiming their general looks and appearance are important to them. Additionally, obesity or being overweight is a matter of concern for 46% of global consumers, and those focusing on weight loss are primarily adopting healthy diets and exercise, besides cutting back on large meals, snacks and processed foods. Natural superfoods like mushrooms are coming to the fore, offering a rich source of nutrients, fibre and antioxidants that enable these consumers to sate hunger without increasing their calorie intake. Notably, a clinical trial conducted on mice in 2015 demonstrated that reishi mushrooms contain phytochemicals with the potential to improve gut health and reduce obesity.

While mushrooms are neither a plant nor animal species, like all fungi, they are classified as vegetables by the USDA based on their nutritional profile, making them a suitable option for consumers who are seeking to reduce their meat consumption in favour of plant-based ingredients. Mushrooms have an added appeal in that they offer a favourable taste and meat-like texture profile. Clinical studies in 2013 indicate that substituting a portion of meat with mushrooms can contribute to weight loss. This makes mushrooms an attractive choice, not only for those trying to lose weight, but also for the 72% of global consumers who are trying to moderate or limit their intake of red meat. The inherent savoury, or umami, flavour of mushrooms may also enable consumers to reduce their salt intake, further improving health and wellness.

Healthy and versatile

While demanding more nutrition from their food and snacks, consumers are unwilling to let go of convenience. Mushrooms are versatile food ingredients that can be transformed into multiple unprocessed and processed formats of food and drink. They can be cooked in multiple ways, enabling their use in virtually any type of food or beverage. Manufacturers can make functional mushrooms available in multiple formats, including raw, canned, frozen or dried whole forms; or in the form of beverages, supplements and powders to suit the convenience of consumers.

Additionally, manufacturers can incorporate functional mushrooms into their existing product lines in order to elevate their perceived nutritional value. Globally, 68% of consumers find products fortified with added nutrients appealing. Fortifying products such as chocolate, confectionery, savoury snacks, coffee and smoothies with functional mushrooms can endow these products with a healthy halo, without compromising on their sensory pleasure.

Functional mushrooms are rich in adaptogenic compounds that are claimed to alleviate the damage caused by excessive stress. Clinical studies have demonstrated the potential of lion’s mane and cordyceps in alleviating anxiety, cognitive impairment, depression, insomnia, menopause and even degenerative disease, such as Alzheimer’s. Additionally, functional mushrooms can be easily formulated into a variety of adaptogenic product formats, such as the beverage and supplement markets. Given the growing popularity of other adaptogens, like ginseng, turmeric and matcha, the outlook is promising for functional mushrooms.

Easy to grow

As trendy superfoods like quinoa and chia can often be cultivated only in specific seasons or geographic areas, high demand for these products can lead to overexploitation, deforestation or soil erosion. Contrarily, functional mushrooms are sustainable crops that can be cultivated locally all year round in various climatic conditions and geographic areas with the aid of greenhouses. Mushrooms can be grown as a supplementary crop for large and small-scale farmers, with minimal land use. As a labour-intensive crop, mushroom cultivation can have a substantial impact on poverty reduction and employment within developing countries. Localised production of mushrooms would minimise the ecological and economic impact of transportation and logistics.

Edible mushrooms can be grown using agricultural wastes, such as potato leaves; industrial biowaste, like coffee pulp or sawdust; and household food waste, which would otherwise end up in landfills. Mushrooms tend to enrich the substrate they grow on with nutrients such as phosphorus, vitamins and amino acids. After mushrooms are harvested, the agricultural waste on which they were grown can be converted into nutritious animal feed, or compost.

Functional mushrooms also have the potential to capitalise on the localism trend. Consumers are increasingly asking for more transparency in the food supply chain, by way of knowing who produced it, and where and how it was produced. Demand for locally produced foods is growing due to the consumer perception that seasonal crops sourced from local farmers are healthier and fresher than store-bought items that are typically transported over many miles and refrigerated for days. Another underlying factor for the trend is the strong desire to support local farmers and the local economy. With more consumers seeking fresh produce from local farms, the ‘local’ tagline is becoming a common catchphrase among food producers and retailers. By virtue of being a nutritious crop that can be cultivated locally, functional mushrooms offer a win-win proposition, providing consumers with fresh produce on-demand, and local farmers with an additional source of revenue.

Mushrooms’ savoury taste and meat-like texture make them an attractive alternative to meat.

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