Soft gold? Cordyceps have strong functional food potential if supply constraints can be overcome

By Millette Burgos

- Last updated on GMT

Cordyceps are often used in TCM
Cordyceps are often used in TCM

Related tags: Traditional chinese medicine

While long treasured for its medicinal properties in Asia, a new Taiwanese review has drawn attention to four species of the fungi Cordyceps, highlighting the mushrooms’ potential as a functional food targeting metabolic, liver, sexual, and bone/joint disorders.

Led by researchers from the Kaohsiung Medical University’s Graduate Institute of Natural Products, the review named Cordyceps sinensis, Cordyceps militaris, Cordyceps sobolifera, and Cordyceps cicadae as species that possess potent pharmacological activities such as apoptic (anti-tumour), anti-inflammatory, lung-kidney protective effects and improvement of sexual stamina.

There are around 500 species of medicinal mushrooms. Among the most important strains are Antrodia, Cordyceps Ganoderma and Phellinus, which are popular in the Taiwanese markets.

The four Cordyceps species are of high value in Taiwan, and are frequently used for traditional medicine in Japan and Korea as well.

In 2006, the imbalance between supply and demand of wild Cordyceps sinensis​ increased the price of the mushroom up to $32,000/kg justifying its name as 'soft gold' in China

The review highlighted the beneficial properties of the four Cordyceps species, which includes the following:

Cordyceps sinensis has immunomodulatory, anti-inflammatory, apoptic, and organ (lung and kidney) properties. It can also help reduce asthma and lower blood pressure.

Cordyceps militaris, which costs less than C sinensis possess similar uses, but is also anti-diabetic and said to improve sperm count.

Cordyceps sobolifera and cicadae possess similar bioactivity and in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) used to treat infantile convulsions, palpitation, and malaria.

Artificial use

However, supply of Cordyceps mushooms are scarce, and has only two main sources – natural wild collection and through artificial culture. Because the species are endoparasitoids (requires host organisms), Cordyceps are difficult to procure in the wild and artificial cultivation requires investing and developing fermentation technologies that would enable suppliers to harvest large amounts for functional food use.

Researchers also pointed out that when cultivating Cordyceps such as C. militaris, chemical and biological activities of the cultured products are often not consistent, depending on the fermenting conditions.  Thus, the study suggested that Cordyceps culture processes must be uniform to ensure the stability and efficacy of the functional foods offered in the market.

So far, the study found only two major active compounds – cordycepin and adenosine to have medicinal properties. The rest of the fungi’s compounds still needs further investigation to find more health benefits.

Also, other types of Cordyceps genus should be studied – with the aim of identifying more species of this mushroom for functional food and potential drug uses.

“Researchers should adopt regulations, standards, and practices from Western and Eastern medicine that have proven to be the most valuable in the quest for health benefits,” ​the study concluded.

Source: Food Science and Human Wellness

Research and development of Cordyceps in Taiwan”.

DOI: 10.1016/j.fshw.2016.08.001

Authors: Ching-Peng Chiu, Tsong-Long Hwang, et al.

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