• Which supplement should I choose ?
Which supplement should I choose ?
Everybody will agree that a dietary supplement is only worth considering if it has therapeutic potency. Consumers in general automatically assume that all dietary supplements have therapeutic potency. But this assumption is wrong! A problem often overlooked is bioavailability – can our body actually digest and absorb the product ?
In particular mushroom supplements are problematic – if they have not been subjected to an extraction procedure they are therapeutically useless.
In the past decade science has made enormous progress in mapping the active ingredients of medicinal mushrooms. We now know that in general their main bioactive ingredients are beta-glucans (a specific bioactive type of polysaccharides), triterpenes, polyphenols and phyto-sterols. In a dual extract all these ingredients are bioavailable (resulting in additional synergy), in a hot water extract only beta-glucans and polyphenols are bioavailable.
As a consumer, you can use this knowledge to judge both the objective quality and the value for money of the product you intend to buy.
As said before, to be able to guarantee therapeutic potency the mushroom supplement should be an extract. Extraction makes the product more expensive, but it is essential. Most people cannot digest non-extracted mushroom products properly. The $ 18.99-per-bottle products (not to mention even cheaper products) are without exception non-extracted mushroom products. They are easy to spot: they do not give a breakdown of the bioactive ingredients on their supplement facts label, because these cannot be determined properly in a non-extracted product.
Sometimes they use convincing-sounding but misleading statements such as ‘a whole food with its natural ratio of components is always a better choice than concentrations of individual elements, like in extracts‘. However, mushroom extraction is never about concentrating specific components (like in herbal extracts), but about making bio-active components bio-available by extracting the indigestible chitin from the mushroom. A statement like that underlines again the fact that most sellers are mostly ignorant about the details of the products they are selling.
Non-extracted products are mostly indigestible (= low bioavailability) and can never deliver therapeutically useful levels of the active ingredients. The producers of these products can also not guarantee the levels of bioactives, making dosing a trial and error process at best. An extensive explanation can be found here. In a consistent quality product the percentages of at least one of the bioactive ingredients is guaranteed and listed on the supplement facts label. The supplement facts label is governmentally supervised and is 100% reliable. Exaggerations or deceiving claims are prohibited.
The only mushroom supplements worth considering are extracts and should guarantee at least one bioactive ingredient (preferably beta-glucans, but usually polysaccharides, part of which are -hopefully- beta-glucans) on their supplement facts label. In general the best extracts in terms of therapeutic potency are dual extracts (AKA ‘full-spectrum’ extracts – see below) which guarantee several bioactive ingredients on their supplement facts label (e.g. beta-glucans + triterpenes).
Keep in mind polysaccharides also include starch, chitin, dextrin and other therapeutically useless compounds. Only beta-glucans are noteworthy bioactive polysaccharides.
What about value for money ?
As an example, take an offer of 100 grams / 3.53 oz. Chaga extract powder for $ 99.95 whereas another supplier might offer 113 grams / 4 oz. for only $ 35. If you only take this fact into account, you might think that the first product is 3 times more expensive. However, the weight should not be the deciding factor here. The deciding factor is the amount of bioactive ingredients you get for your money. It defines the therapeutic potency of the product. It defines whether it is beneficial for you or not (in the therapeutic sense).
Example of a value for money calculation:
Product A: 10% polysaccharides; 60 capsules @ 500mg; $ 10. (10% = 50 mg polysaccharides p/capsule)
Product B: 30% polysaccharides; 60 capsules @ 400mg; $ 20. (30% = 120 mg polysaccharides p/capsule)
Although it is not compulsory, there is no reason not to list the active ingredients on the label (it is a great selling point!!), except maybe these:
NB – Asian products usually do not reveal the active ingredients on their labels. They are in general very expensive, not just because they are imported, but because many people unconsciously assume ‘expensive means better quality’ and the sellers often abuse this assumption for their benefit.
The Asian suppliers have nothing to gain by the Western style of business transparency; the therapeutic potency of their products is in general low or average at best, just like the majority of the Western products. Instead of using verifiable quality claims they rely on emotional triggers to market their products. A health guru or a person in a white coat is supposed to give the product credibility.
You, as a consumer, should be aware that your emotions are being played. Don’t let that happen – use your head. Read the supplement facts label. It is objective and you can trust it. It makes it easy to compare products and to judge a products’ objective quality. Ignore the website writings – only the label is actively monitored by the authorities.
Core fact: the majority of supplement sellers give no detailed information about their product and the amount of bioactives it contains. Most big companies and all multi-level marketing (MLM) companies use this strategy in our experience: instead of investing in quality products they prefer to invest in marketing. It is in the end more profitable, apparently.
Value for money is determined by the amount of bioactive ingredients you get for your money, not by just the weight or the size of the capsules. Knowing what is listed on the official supplement facts label is essential to be able to determine value for money. A product without guaranteed levels of bioactives cannot be valued objectively and as a consumer, you have no clue what you are buying. Accurate dosing is impossible because you don’t know the amount of bioactives in the tablet/capsule.
Why is Siberian Chaga better than Chaga from other regions ?
The answer is short – it is not.
Chaga has a long history of use in Russia and over there it is found mainly in the coldest regions of Siberia. When Chaga became ‘hot’ in the slipstream of the recent superfood hype, the term ‘Siberian Chaga’ added an exotic not to say romantic/authentic touch to the product. But in fact it is mere marketing, playing the emotions of the potential customer.
In fact, when judging a Chaga product the same rules apply as when judging a mushroom supplement in general (see the first FAQ): check the supplement facts label. Chaga’s main bioactives are, according to science, beta-glucans and betulin / betulinic acid. Look for these on the supplement facts label and you can objectively compare products against each other. Siberian Chaga does not have better therapeutic properties or a higher amount of bioactives as a standard.
The extraction technology used to make the bioactives bioavailable is actually more important. This is obvious when comparing e.g. Russian-made extracts with Chinese extracts.
Lab technician at work in Russian Chaga extraction factory
The Chinese do everything according to their customers wishes, which makes the quality range from very low to very high. Russians use only hot water extraction and are therefore not producing full spectrum extracts (also see the next FAQ). This means the natural synergy found in a full-spectrum product will be missing.
Russian producers are also forced by the Russian Pharmacopeia to use the ‘Chromogenic complex’ as the quality standard for Chaga. This ‘Chromogenic complex’ is an outdated concept from the 1950s which reveals nothing about Chaga’s chemical composition. It is useless as a valuation tool from the modern point of view.
See, as an example, the opening paragraph of this Russian journal – (Translated from Khimiko-Farmatsevticheskii Zhurnal, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp. 35 – 37, March, 2010) where the ‘chromogenic complex’ is described as ‘ a vague concept with no definition of its chemical composition’ and products and protocols based on that (meaning: all Russian Chaga extracts) are described as ‘severely out of date’ and ‘not respond(ing) to current requirements ‘. This article is written by Russian Chaga producers/exporters that apparently want to spread their wings and be able to compete with non-Russian Chaga, using modern scientific concepts, just like the rest of the world.
Scientific research does not use ‘chromogenic complex’ as a starting point, only spectrographic analysis (invented in the late 50s) and other, even more advanced methods such as HPLC.
If you go to PubMed, the worlds largest database of scientific publications and you enter “chromogenic complex chaga” (or something similar) as a search term NOTHING shows up. There is ZERO research using the chromogenic complex in Chaga as a starting point, not even in the most important Russian scientific papers (which are also indexed in PubMed).
Where the Chaga was harvested is not that relevant. When judging a Chaga product the same rules apply as when judging a mushroom supplement in general: check the supplement facts label, or, if possible, the Analysis certificate (CoA) on which that label is based. The products therapeutic potency is a combi of using the proper raw material and optimal processing. Only the levels of acknowledged bioactives matter. High levels means a pure extract. In the end, this determines the therapeutic efficacy, not exotic stories and historic references.
What is a ‘full spectrum extract’ ?
This term used to refer to a mushroom extract containing the full spectrum of therapeutically interesting bioactives in a bioavailable form. Only extracts that have been extracted using both hot water and alcohol extraction (or fermentation) can claim this. These products contain both the water-soluble and the non water-soluble bioactives; in other words, everything that is therapeutically interesting. (During the extraction process only chitin is removed. Chitin is the reason non-extracted mushroom products are indigestible: it locks the bioactives in the cell walls of the mushroom, like a LEGO brick is locked in a LEGO wall.)
However, in the past year we’ve seen several websites where the term ‘full-spectrum’ was used to deceivingly describe a product that was e.g. a combination of mycelia, substrate and fruiting body. A smart play with words, but in essence misleading.
Most medicinal mushrooms were found to have the biggest concentration of bioactives in either the fruiting body or the mycelia, so for most products combining these has no added benefit, although it does indeed sound very ‘complete’ to an ignorant layman. It is just marketing talk. Below we give some examples, to illustrate our point.
Natural Cordyceps. The black ‘branch’ on the left is the fruiting body, and the caterpillar is filled with mycelia – only the skin is left.
E.g. Cordyceps sinensis fruiting bodies do not contain the marker compounds that are responsible for Cordyceps’ reputation, the nucleosides and the cordycepin. The ancient Chinese already knew this: wild Cordyceps with the highest value is the one with a very small fruiting body and a large ‘worm’ (which is filled with mycelia). Cultivated mycelia of specific strains, chosen for their consistent quality, give the best yield of bioactives.
Reishi, on the other hand is exactly the opposite: Reishi’s marker compounds (the ganoderic acids and other triterpenes) only start developing when the mycelia are about to form a fruiting body (once a year) and are mainly found in the fruiting body.
In old times Reishi’s therapeutic quality was valued by its bitterness. The mycelia are not bitter at all because they contain very little triterpenes. The triterpenes are responsible for the bitter taste.
There are also ‘full-spectrum’ Chaga products for sale that claim to contain a mix of the wild-harvested fruiting body and cultivated (lab-grown) mycelia. This is wrong in more than one way. Chaga is a parasitic fungus, infecting mainly birch trees. Chaga extracts are always mycelia based, because the black growth called Chaga is actually not a fruiting body but a dense, hardened mass of mycelia that comes bursting from the inside of the tree, a few years after infection. It is called a sclerotium.
This is Chaga mycelium cultivated in a petri dish. Small fruiting bodies are forming.
Several of Chaga’s main bioactive ingredients are developing only because of the battle of the fungus with its host; in particular the phyto-sterols and the polyphenols, responsible for the anti-oxidant properties. Lab-grown Chaga mycelia have therefore a completely different chemical composition. Betulinic acid is also absent in lab-grown Chaga mycelia, because in nature the fungus absorbs this from its host, the birch tree. Therefore only dual extracted, wild-harvested Chaga can claim to contain the full spectrum of bioactives.
Apart from all this a key point remains the extraction procedure. No matter what the source or composition is of a particular mushroom product, if it has not been extracted it is best avoided in our opinion. It should also have a breakdown of the main bioactive ingredients on the supplement facts label, as said before. If not, you have in fact no clue what you actually get and whether or not it will be therapeutically effective, as explained before. The proof of quality lies in the scientific facts, not in folk stories.
Dried Red Reishi + mycelium + substrate…
A full-spectrum mushroom extract should contain the full spectrum of bioactives; meaning both the water soluble and the non-water soluble ones. ‘Full-spectrum’ as a term should refer to a dual extract (hot water + alcohol), not to a product containing the full range of a mushrooms growth cycle.
Why this emphasis on extracts ?
When looking for medicinal mushroom supplements you’ll come across these options:
Medicinal mushrooms have a long history of use; some types (like Reishi and Coriolus) have a documented history of over 2000 years. In recent decades science started investigating the therapeutic effects of mushrooms and fungi in general, triggered by the accidental discovery of anti-biotics such as penicillin (1928) and, in Asia, by the reported successes of traditional medicinal systems (like TCM and Ayurveda). Many successful drugs have been discovered this way.
Scientific research and traditional use is always using extraction (hot water, hot alcohol (=ethanol) and other types of solvent extraction) when researching mushrooms, to overcome the problem of the poor bioavailability of raw/dried mushrooms.
A 2015 study performed at Bastyr University clearly showed the differences in therapeutic potential between extracted and non-extracted mushroom products.
See the picture.
Specific immune-related effects of 39 mushroom products compared. The black bars show the effects of the extracted and the white bars the effects of the non-extracted products. The differences are striking.
Many people think that herbs and mushrooms are similar, structure-wise, but they are wrong. Herbs are plants and mushrooms are not. Herbs are made of cellulose, structurally speaking. Cellulose degrades in alcohol (which is the reason why herbal tinctures are successful). Mushrooms, however, are chitin based. Chitin is probably the hardest natural material found on earth – it is also the main building block of e.g. lobsters’ claws and insect’s exo-skeleton. Chitin does not degrade in alcohol or water. (Which is the reason why mushroom tinctures are mostly useless, therapeutically speaking – also see below). Most people cannot digest unprocessed mushrooms or mushroom products – they lack the enzyme chitinase in their stomach, needed to break down chitin. The bioactive ingredients are embedded in the chitin, like LEGO bricks in a LEGO wall, and in order to benefit from them the chitin should be removed. Heat is very effective to ‘melt’ the chitin and set the embedded bioactives free, thus making them bioavailable.
Cultivated Cordyceps militaris fruiting bodies as an ingredient in Chinese duck soup.
A hot water extraction is probably the most common and cheapest process to create a therapeutically useful mushroom product. Mushroom teas or mushroom soups are in the core crude hot water extracts.
Still, extraction costs money, so many supplement producers skip this step, knowing that 99% of their potential customers will be unaware of the limited bioavailability of their products. It seems like a harsh thing to say, but it is a verifiable fact that most supplement sellers don’t really care about helping people. They are running a business, and their main focus is trying to make money. Cutting costs is a good way to improve the profit margin.
After reading this it will be obvious that if you want a maximal therapeutic effect and you want your money’s worth a well-prepared extract is the only option. Making your own tea or DIY home extraction is unfortunately not very effective and relatively expensive (the yield of bioactives is at least 10 times lower when compared to a multistep dual extract prepared in a dedicated factory). Biomass products, tinctures and mushroom powders are in comparison a waste of money, unless your main objective is to stimulate your bowel movements (chitin is a dietary fiber).
This is cultivated red Reishi, sitting on top of its mycelium + saw dust substrate. This dried brick is harder then concrete – see this link.
Ground into a fine powder, this is basically what you’ll consume if you choose a non-extracted ‘full-spectrum’ Reishi extract. Sounds good ?
A mushroom supplement should be extracted, because only extracts can deliver therapeutic effects. Scientific research and traditional use is always using extraction (hot water, hot alcohol (=ethanol) and other types of solvent extraction) when researching mushrooms, to overcome the problem of the poor bioavailability of raw/dried mushrooms.
Liquid extracts and tinctures
In a liquid extract or tincture the main ingredient is always the liquid. This can be water, alcohol or something else, but it is a liquid that has no therapeutic potency in itself. It is only a carrier for the actual active ingredients, and contrary to popular belief liquid extracts do not have better bioavailability, although they might be digested faster (but this has nothing to do with bioavailability).
To jump straight to the conclusion, all liquid extracts and tinctures are offering a ridiculously low value for money. Even without knowing how much bioactives are actually present in the product (we’re not aware of any liquid mushroom product that specifies any bioactives, not even polysaccharides) this is very obvious.
First, take into account that all powdered extracts exist in a liquid phase before they are dried, because the extraction method used is almost always -liquid- solvent extraction (water and/or alcohol). An dried extract in powder form contains max. ± 4 – 9% of moisture, whereas a liquid product usually contains at least 85% of moisture (= liquid).
Second, a basic calculation: a 50 ml bottle completely filled with dry powdered extract can contain about 19 grams of extract powder (easy to verify – fill a 50 ml measuring cup with extract powder and weigh it before and after filling it). This equals around 63 capsules @ 300 mg. If you calculate the price per capsule of a specific product you can already do the math.
But, don’t forget that in this example we actually left out the liquid – we’re just comparing a 50 ml bottle filled 100% with powdered extract against powdered extracts in capsules. If you introduce the liquid (85-95% of the contents, usually) the value for money gets truly bad.
If 15% of the bottle contents is actual extract that means a 50ml bottle will contain ± 2.85 grams of extract (15% of 19 grams). Taking the Oriveda Chaga extract powder as an example, 2.85 grams will cost ± $ 2.84 ($ 99.95 p/100 grams, incl. shipping). A 50 ml bottle of liquid Chaga extract might cost as much as $ 60 – $ 90.
A liquid extract/tincture will be at least 21 to 31 times more expensive than a good quality powdered extract. Apart from that, there are no liquid extracts/tinctures that specify any bioactive ingredients, such as beta-glucan or triterpenes. The therapeutic potential is minimal at best.
(Thank you Duncan Moss, for asking the question -see below- that led to us adding this final paragraph !!)
Product reviews and testimonials
The majority of people do not share their reasons for buying a particular product with the seller and most don’t bother to share the results, even when they are good. The normal review rate was found to be ± 2% of all sales. In order to get testimonials and reviews on their website, the seller has to offer an additional trigger, such as a discount or a chance to win something worthwhile. This automatically corrupts the testimonial system.
People tend to write overly positive reviews, to increase their chances of winning the potential price or to get more discounts.
Apart from that, testimonials are impossible to verify – the reason why it’s easy and tempting to write your own testimonials as a company. This is done a lot. And negative testimonials are usually non-existent.
Another point is that testimonials can be abused to make indirect health claims for products, which is illegal.
For all these reasons the use of testimonials in marketing is prohibited in the EU, which seems like a good thing.
That aside, it is easy to see after analyzing websites with a lot of testimonials on them (100s to 1000s) that almost without exception these websites are using testimonials to mask the fact that they actually have no verifiable quality claims about their products to share (the key word here is ‘verifiable’, of course).
Their supplement facts labels do not guarantee bioactives or are missing altogether. Many of these websites are MLM-companies, which are solely relying on testimonials, because the main focus for everybody involved in an MLM-setup is making money, not offering high quality products.
Many people go to Amazon.com to purchase supplements. On Amazon third party sellers are allowed to offer customers discounts in return for product reviews. The initial goal was to offer potential customers more information and background. But instead this led to the development of ‘professional reviewers’.
The whole concept is now completely corrupted and became unreliable. In particular because Amazon is using these 4- and 5-star reviews as a guideline for their ‘Best Sellers’ lists. If a seller has a lot of positive reviews their products will show up on the first page in search results, which is the best thing that can happen to you on Amazon. More sales, more money !
If you plan a purchase on Amazon and the seller has 100s of reviews, it is advisable to check the reliability of the seller and these reviews on this website.
Testimonials and reviews as found on websites in general cannot be trusted and are not a reliable way to value a product.. On Amazon the reviews can at least be tested for their reliability, which is good. Also see this link for an extensive test; the test team from Lab Door have been comparing objective lab data against subjective consumer reviews for the same products. An interesting read !
Last revision: July 7th, 2016
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