Don't Buy That Bottle of Caterpillar Cordyceps Mushroom Supplement Before Reading This
The health benefits of a traditional Chinese medicine advertised under the label “Cordyceps Mushroom Supplement,” was recently promoted on television claiming to have the potential to restore lost energy and vigor. While the acclaimed health benefits of medicine made from the Asian Cordyceps fungus are nothing new, what was surprising was the televised advertised price of only $7 for a fair sized bottle of this supplement.
The surprise is that as of last fall, BBC News reports stated that some Himalayan villagers make their living by collecting the fungus along the mountainous regions of Tibet to sell to a Chinese market that can be as high as tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram. In fact, the money to be made is so lucrative that it resulted in multiple homicides as villagers from one region tried to prevent outsiders from cashing in on their limited supply.
The Cordyceps Mushroom supplement comes from an Asian mushroom known as Cordyceps sinesis (C. sinesis), which sprouts from the body of dead caterpillar in the wild. It is also known as the Himalayan Viagra “Yarsagumba,” which translates as “winter worm, summer grass.” Reportedly it can only be found in the mountainous regions above 11,000 feet in Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan.
The fungus is the result of spores from C. sinesis entering the body of a live caterpillar while it is in the larval form of a large moth native to the region. Upon infection from the spores, strands of filaments called “hyphae” begin to sprout from the spores that then leads to the death of the caterpillar. The hyphae grow longer and more numerous and develop into a relatively large stalk-like fungal fruiting body that emerges from the insect’s carcass after having sapped the caterpillar’s body of all nutrients.
Cordyceps fungus has been and still is used for medicinal purposes in China. However, it reportedly has been also used as a non-detectable performance enhancing drug for Olympic hopefuls. During the National Games in 1993, track records by Chinese athletes were credited in part to drinking a tea made from the caterpillar fungus.
Today, demand for the fungus is increasing and is used more for its supposed energy-generating properties with sexual health and vigor topping the list as a cure for erectile dysfunction making it an Asian version of Viagra.
As a result of the demand for and the increasing scarcity of the mushroom, the cost of procuring this traditional medicine is beyond the budget of most health conscious consumers. Which begs the question: How can a health food store or online seller of this expensive supplement sell it so cheap?
The answer to that question is that they are not selling what you are led to believe is the “real thing.” Rather, they are selling the mushroom or an “extract” of the mushroom or whatever, without it having been grown under the same environmental and nutritional conditions as the expensive wild-grown Cordyceps fungus. In short—they don’t use the potentially important caterpillar to grow the mushroom supplement they sell.
An online search of a variety of sellers of Cordyceps mushroom supplements reveals that aside from the typical promotional health benefits guaranteed, on closer inspection a typically smaller font states something like, “…contains a strain of cultivated Cordyceps recognized by the Chinese government as most similar to wild Cordyceps sinesis, a rare fungus found in the Tibetan Highlands of China.”
“Most similar” is how the sellers avoid fraud charges. To be fair, some sellers are less evasive and do plainly state that their Cordyceps Mushroom supplement is not derived from a caterpillar.
It turns out that that the sale of counterfeit Cordyceps mushroom is a problem even among the Chinese. In one study, researchers point out having determined that some supplies are diluted with soy or other ingredients, or in worse cases—not the right mushroom. They determined this just by simply putting ground samples of product under a microscope and identifying fake ingredients.
In addition, it is not clear how or why the Cordyceps mushroom possesses its supposed health benefiting properties. And, whether or not it really requires a specific caterpillar or insect host, or whether it must grow from an insect that feeds upon a particular plant or root also remains unknown.
Because the sustainability of maintaining natural wild Cordyceps mushroom is a growing problem, researchers are trying to learn more about its host/parasite relationship and whether it can be mimicked in the lab using other insect species. Currently, some labs and businesses grow the mushroom successfully on an artificial nutrient media without the insect component—which is most likely what you are buying relatively cheap in a bottle from your health store or online seller.
Just to be clear, this is not to say that research—and there’s a lot of it going on—using Cordyceps mushroom grown without the caterpillar is not good science. The odds are that the far majority is good science and is seeking to answer the aforementioned questions about the Cordyceps fungus and its potential role in treating disease—cancer related research is one example.
The point to all this is that the buyer of this supplement should be aware that if the cost is inexpensive, it is not what he or she were most likely looking for. And even if they do find a source that is fairly expensive, there’s a good chance they are being bamboozled one way or another. There may be some truth to at least some of the claims made about the caterpillar Cordyceps mushroom’s health benefits—it’s been around for centuries—but to find that truth you’ll have to get past the deception first.
Image Source: Courtesy of Wikipedia
“Application of microscopy in authentication of valuable Chinese medicine I--Cordyceps sinensis, its counterfeits, and related products” Microscopy Technique and Research 2011 Jan;75(1):54-64; Au D., Wang L., Yang D., Mok DK., and Xu H.
“Host insect species of Ophiocordyceps sinensis: a review” Zookeys. 2011; (127): 43–59. Published online 2011 September 8; Xiao-Liang Wang and Yi-Jian Yao.
Updated November 1, 2014