Get ready to take a deep dive into the world of cordyceps, a highly revered medicinal mushroom that's making some serious waves. 5 years ago you'd be hard-pressed to find someone in North America who knew what they were, now you can find this incredible mushroom in coffee, smoothies, teas and of course, performance enhancing supplements.
But this multi-million dollar industry has a dark side and consumers have been getting ripped off for decades. Keep reading so that you don't waste your money on poor quality Cordyceps, or any other medicinal mushroom, ever again.
(Tea is the traditional way that Cordyceps was taken; high-potency extracts are now favored by enthusiasts)
Our goal is to equip you with the best information so that you can make the right choices when choosing to buy a medicinal mushroom supplement.
When someone talks about a mushroom they are normally referring to what's called the "fruiting body".
For example, when you buy edible mushrooms from the grocery store you're buying the fruiting body of the mushroom, it's the fruit of the fungi that becomes present when it has matured. The other, below ground portion, is the "mycelium" which is like the "root structure" of the mushroom.
(Here you can see the recognizable above ground fruiting body and the below ground mycelium "root structure". This is not Cordyceps.)
Cordyceps is what's known as an Adaptogen, this means it belongs to a group of medicinal plants & mushrooms that have a non-specific, wide-range of medicinal properties. Adaptogens also help the body to form greater resistance to stress & anxiety while having a normalizing effect on the body. You can expect a future post on this subject.
(Adaptogens are generally non-toxic and have been safely used for health & wellness and to increase human vitality for thousands of years. This image does not show all adaptogens.)
Cordyceps have some amazing health benefits and there's a decent amount of scientific studies to show that, however the body of scientific research is only one part of the story. Cordyceps have been used for hundreds of years for health and optimization, more studies are needed to further highlight the benefits acknowledged by health practitioners, enthusiasts and performance athletes across the world.
Here are just some of the health benefits of cordyceps:
* Improvements in vitality, quality of life and counteracts the effects of oxidative stress. Promotes heart health & healthy cholesterol and lowers "bad" cholesterol.
In addition to the uses mentioned above, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TMC) practitioners use Cordyceps for improving liver function and notably, kidney health (with some interesting findings). TMC practitioners also use Cordyceps for immune support, persistent cough, bronchitis, altitude sickness and even as an anti-viral for HIV treatment (notable findings). Incredible isn't it? Cordyceps truly is an amazing medicinal mushroom.
Adenosine is what's known as a purine nucleoside present in every cell in the human body. Cordyceps contains exogenous adenosine (from outside the body) and Cordycepin, a derivative of adenosine. . These two main active compounds are responsible for the majority of the sought-after benefits of cordyceps. Simply put, the promise of cordycepin & adenosine is why you pay a premium for a Cordyceps supplement.
It all began when Sherpa's in the Tibetan highlands noticed that their flock was more energized, had more stamina and greater vitality when they grazed on grasses in certain areas. Eventually they figured out that it wasn't the grass giving them newfound vitality, it was something hiding in the grass. Cordyceps Sinensis was discovered and it must have come as a shock because this strange mushroom takes a very peculiar form.
(Don't worry. this isn't what's inside your Cordyceps supplement)
Cordyceps sinenis begins its life as a spore hoping to be eaten by a caterpillar host, once consumed the spores begin to grow, filling the entire caterpillar with mycelium until, well... the picture says it all. Eventually the entire caterpillar is replaced by the cordyceps and only the outer skin remains.
So naturally when they discovered it, someone decided to put it in their mouth, and in no time the caterpillar fungus became the performance enhancer of choice in the area and quickly spread across China where it was revered for it's beneficial health properties.
Believe it or not, a single kilo of this ugly little mushroom can fetch upwards of $20,000 USD! Cordyceps Sinensis or "Tibetan Gold" is highly prized for its health benefits but it's rarity is what makes it so expensive. The caterpillar mushroom only grows between 3,000 and 5,000 meters above sea level in specific regions, mostly around the Himalayas. A cordyceps picker will harvest as few as 20 in a day and due to over-harvesting, it's often far less.
(Cordyceps Sinensis picker camp in Nepal)
A lot of companies will advertise with pictures of the caterpillar fungus, they are almost certainly lying to you. This freaky little mushroom is so expensive that your bottle of pills would have to cost you hundreds of dollars. Unfortunately, wild Cordyceps sinensis cannot be farmed and thus isn't viable for commercial use, it's also highly endangered and unsustainable for the massive global demands.
99% of all products claiming to use Cordyceps sinensis are instead using what's called a "myceliated grain product", no caterpillar (or mushroom) involved.
The high price and high demand for cordyceps had bad-ass Chinese scientists working to successfully isolate the first strain of cordyceps that could be cultivated. In 1982 they did just that and the result was a strain they called CS-4.
CS-4 is a mycelium-only product, and it contains similar active compounds found in the wild caterpillar fungus, most-notably adenosine, a compound mimicking adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is the organic chemical found in every cell of the human body and is responsible for making your muscles twitch and your heart beat.
CS-4 proved to be so cost-effective and successful that it was approved by the Ministry of Chinese Health for use as a medicine in 1987 and has been wildly used ever since. Cordyceps is now a multi-million dollar industry.
The vast majority of the scientific studies on the effects of cordyceps are done using Cordyceps CS-4 and it has been widely proven as safe and highly effective. Best of all, CS-4 can be manufactured to have MUCH higher levels of Adenosine than its caterpillar counterpart. The claimed benefits of cordyceps as we know it come almost exclusively from CS-4 studies and yet they are often used to falsely advertise cordyceps products that do not contain CS-4.
Some decades later, innovation led to the successful cultivation of the fruiting bodies of the Cordyceps mushroom, this time, using a different species. The bright orange fruiting body of Cordyceps militaris is rich in cordycepin, a key compound produced exclusively by the cordyceps mushroom and what's largely the responsible for cordyceps energizing effects.
This wild-looking fungi couldn't have come at a better time. As the worlds demand for Cordyceps has begun skyrocketing, Militaris is quickly becoming the favorite variety. Cordyceps Militaris is much more cost effective than CS-4 as it's much easier to grow.
(Cordyceps Militaris fruiting bodies, now that's a mushroom!)
Many companies that use the cheaper Cordyceps Militaris will proudly claim that they use "fruiting bodies only" as some sort of badge of quality, but the truth is that both the mycelium and the fruiting bodies of the cordyceps contain valuable active compounds.
One advantage of the caterpillar fungus is that it naturally contains both the mycelium and the fruiting body. It should be noted that the most valued cordyceps sinensis are the ones with the largest caterpillar host, it is the mycelium portion that's the most potent and sought-after, not the fruiting body as most would have you think.
The way Cordyceps is grown matters a LOT.
To this day the iconic caterpillar fungus cannot be farmed and yet many companies are still claiming to sell cordyceps sinensis, what they are selling you is in-fact "myceliated grain" or "grain spawn". This is when a tub of starch (usually rice or millet) is inoculated with spores of a Cordyceps Sinensis anamorph (mycelium that does not produce a fruiting body). The spores start to grow a mycelium web (like roots) all throughout the grain, when the mycelium has reached its optimal yield and completely saturated the growing medium, the mass is dried into a brick then pulverized into a powder. That powder is what's in your cordyceps sinensis supplement and though it's sold to you as a medicinal mushroom it is actually more than 60% starch.
(Myceliated grain... This is dried, powdered and sold to you as mushrooms)
Shockingly, some of the most well respected (and expensive) medicinal mushroom producers in The USA use this method because it's the cheapest and easiest way to grow a product that they can claim to be Cordyceps when in fact it is mostly starch. The resulting product has extremely low potency and is a poor source of both Cordycepin and Adenosine.
CS-4, which is a pure mycelium product, is grown in a nutrient-dense liquid inside a steel chamber called a bioreactor. The mycelium grows quickly in the warm liquid substrate and forms a solid mycelial mass that is dried, powdered and then extracted and concentrated to the desired specification. The result is a highly-bio-available extract that contains no starch and is rich in Adenosine.
Not to be confused with "myceliated grain" which results in mostly starch, Cordyceps Militaris is most-often grown on rice, millet or sorghum in sealed glass containers. Once the fruiting body has reached maturity it's separated from the growing medium before being dried and powdered, then ideally, dual extracted. The result is a product that's highly bio-available and rich in Cordycepin with negligible starch content.
(Cordyceps Militaris grown on grain)
Do not buy ANY medicinal mushroom product unless it clearly says "extract" on the supplement facts panel, here's why:
The cell walls of all mushrooms is made up of chitin, an incredibly strong natural material that needs to be broken down in order to release the sought-after compounds inside.
Chitin is also found in the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects (think lobster claws and crab shells). Only a very small percentage of the population can naturally breakdown chitin by producing an enzyme called chitinase, for the rest of us, it must first be extracted.
It's widely known that non-extracted medicinal mushrooms have very little bio-availability and cordycepin & adenosine levels that are so low they can't even be measured. To put it simply, non-extracted medicinal mushroom products are a waste of money.
Hot Water Extract: Hot water breaks down chitin, that's why tea has been use traditionally to unlock the benefits of medicinal mushrooms.
Alcohol Extract: An alcohol extraction is used to dissolve the compounds that aren't water-soluble.
The most potent and bio-available extracts are "dual-extracted" with both hot water and alcohol.
Extracts come in two forms, powder and liquid. Liquid mushroom extracts are generally what's called an alcohol tincture.
An alcohol or water-based tincture is by-nature an extract and often high-quality tinctures will be dual-extracted, both good things, but the problem with even the most expensive tincture is that 85% or more of what you're paying for is grain alcohol or water, both of which cost pennies and contain no active compounds.
Keep in mind that all good mushroom extracts will start as a liquid (water/alcohol extract) and are then dried into a powder resulting in much higher levels of active compounds.
When compared to a high quality powdered extract, a liquid tincture extract is almost a complete waste of money.
We have yet to find a single medicinal mushroom tincture that displays the active compound levels of their product.
When it comes to medicinal mushrooms China has everyone beat, hands down, there's no competition. Their use of Medicinal mushrooms dates back thousands of years, well-before North America was invaded by the Europeans. And since that time they have been working ceaselessly to improve their growing and extraction methods.
Chinese technology and infrastructure for producing high-grade extracts is on a level that's currently unimaginable in North America and with all of that investment has come a refinement of their process that allows them to achieve levels of active compounds so potent and bio-available, that no other country can compete.
That depends. China is massive and ranges from the pristine Tibetan highlands to its smoggy coastal mega-cities and untouched northern forests bordering Russia and Mongolia with superb air quality. China makes some of the world greatest products (like the phone or laptop you're probably reading this on) but they also make some pretty terrible products...
What matters most is the test results showing you the objective quality of the product. I would trust a company displaying their third-party test results over one that doesn't every single time. You should not be taking any supplements where the test results aren't being shared openly.
Sadly, many companies use scare tactics to try and trick people into thinking that "grown in the USA" means a more safe and effective product. What many of these companies won't tell you, is that their product is either low-potency myceliated grain or a Militaris product that is so low in the % of cordycepin and adenosine that they hide it from their packaging (and from you the consumer).
Does it Pass Heavy Metal and Microbiological Contamination Testing?
This is the gold-standard for required testing and if you ask for it, a company should be able to provide you with their lab results without hesitation.
Is it Organic?
Organic means that it is free of synthetic additives, namely pesticides and chemical fertilizers. This is important because fungi easily absorb whatever is in their surrounding environment.
Is it Extracted?
Not "heat treated", "full spectrum" or any other marketing BS, It must say "extract" on the supplement facts panel, if it doesn't, then it's a waste of your hard-earned money.
What are the Levels of Active Compounds?
This is the Hail-Mary of all questions to ask before buying any mushroom supplement and the only objective way of knowing the potency of what you're buying.
If the level of Cordycepin and Adenosine aren't listed on a Cordyceps product it's because the company trying to sell it to you doesn't want you knowing that information. The testing for these compounds costs only a few hundred dollars and the results speak for themselves.
Just like you wouldn't buy gasoline without knowing the octane rating, you shouldn't buy a mushroom supplement without knowing the % of active compounds.
Many companies will tell you their product is "high potency" and stamp some silly 50:1 or 200:1 "Extract ratio" on it. This self-proclaimed ratio is them claiming that in the case of say 50:1, there is 50 parts of raw material to 1 part extract. 50 lbs of cordyceps becomes 1 pound of extract.
This seems impressive but in reality it's just another marketing con-job. If you send a supposed "200:1 extract" to be tested, not a single third-party lab in the world could verify those results, it's a meaningless number and doesn't tell you anything about the potency of the product.
However, if a cordyceps extract has been shown to have a cordycepin level of 1% (which is higher than 99% of all cordyceps products currently available on the market), any properly equipped laboratory could verify those findings.
The % of active compounds is the ONLY objective way to know the potency of a medicinal plant or mushroom extract.
Many medicinal mushroom companies will try to win you over by talking about the polysaccharide content in their product. Polysaccharides have been shown to enhance immune response.
The problem is that polysaccharides aren't a good measure of quality for a mushroom product because starch is a major source of polysaccharides. A myceliated grain product could have high polysaccharide count while having untraceable amounts of cordycepin and adenosine. If you're paying a premium for a Cordyceps supplement high in polysaccharides and no cordycepin or adenosine then you're being robbed.
(1>3)(1>6)Beta-D-glucans are a type of polysaccharide that have been shown to stimulate immune response and have other potential health benefits. It's being advertised that beta-glucans are what you should be looking for in your Cordyceps supplement but the truth is the all medicinal mushroom contain beta-glucans, and some, like Maitake and Turkey Tail mushroom, produced them at much higher rates. and at lower cost.
The two compounds that give cordyceps it's signature and sought-after energizing effects are Cordycepin and Adenosine, the former being produced solely by the cordyceps mushroom and not found elsewhere.
Cordyceps should be extracted for the compounds that make it so unique. And if you're wanting the best medicinal mushroom supplement for your immune system then there are more effective (and cheaper) mushrooms to use. But if you're buying a Cordyceps supplement that touts it's beta-glucan levels without telling you the level of cordycepin and adenosine, watch out!
Don't make the rookie mistake of being dazzled by the amount of mushroom (mg's) in your supplement, the potency is what matters most and without knowing the % of active compounds you cannot know how potent your supplement really is.
For example: 500 mg of Cordyceps extract from Company A cannot be compared to 3 grams of Cordyceps from Company B without knowing the potency.
In this example, if Company A is selling 500 mg of 2% Cordycepin Cordyceps extract, it can be hundreds of times more potent than the 3 grams from Company B even though they offer 6X more cordyceps by weight .
Potency > Amount per Serving
You cannot determine quality (potency & efficacy) without knowing the % of active compounds.
A product displaying the the % of active compounds should be assumed more potent product than any product by a company choosing to hide the potency from the customer.