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Reishi - The Quest For Quality

Introduction

When we decided to add Reishi to our product line, we asked ourselves the following questions:

  • Why should one choose a Reishi extract instead of, for example, a Chaga extract ?
  • After having the answer to that, what properties should the best Reishi product possible have ? (because that is what we were after)
  • What other Reishi products are currently available and how good are they ?

The first two questions could be answered quickly.

We discovered that what makes Reishi stand out from other medicinal mushrooms is the combination of bioactives; water-soluble beta-glucans (including glyco-proteins/proteo-glycans; fancy names for protein- and peptide-linked beta-glucans) and alcohol-soluble triterpenes, many of which are unique for Reishi.

These compounds appear to have a powerful synergistic effect when combined, so it was obvious our product should be a dual extract (meaning a combination of a hot water extract and an alcohol extract) with high percentages of these bioactives in a bioavailable form.

Therefore the source material should be red Reishi fruiting bodies, cultivated on wood logs (also known as 'duanwood': meaning 'original wood', the same wood Reishi grows on in nature). Research papers showed that this combination produces the highest level of bioactives.

It was not easy to come up with a Reishi product that outclasses all others and is still affordable, because there are literally 100s of them, with prices ranging from a few to hundreds of dollars. Even more confusing: suppliers' prices for Reishi products with almost identical specifications could vary as much as 600% (!) from one supplier to the other.

How was that possible ?

Reishi being cultivated in bags with wood chips and sawdust.

For superior Reishi cultivation on wood logs is the best option, though.

To get an answer to these questions and to make sure we would get the best and most pure product, in line with our other mushroom extracts, we had to do a lot of research. This took time, but it was worth it - not only did we learn a lot but we can now supply our customers with the best Reishi product available for a reasonable price. And with this article, the core of which is applicable to most other mushroom extracts.

Mapping the competition

Example of a Reishi tincture supplement facts label. There is no indication of bioactive ingredients, so the consumer has no idea what he is buying.

Non-extracted products

Our first step while researching the competition was to separate the extracts from the non-extracted products and tinctures.

Non-extracted mushroom products are indigestible for most people, so their therapeutic potential is unpredictable. (See this article for the details about this.)

Tinctures and infusions without a specification of bioactives on the supplement facts label should also be classified as having limited therapeutic potential - most, if not all of them are just non-extracted Reishi powder in alcohol and/or water with an unverifiable therapeutic potential.

Unverifiable, because the producer cannot and does not guarantee any bioactives. There is not a single Reishi tincture that has specifications of the bioactives on the supplement facts label. In terms of therapeutic potential tinctures are the worst, right after non-extracted products. A detailed explanation why mushroom tinctures are best avoided in general can be found here.

The main idea seems to be that extraction will happen in the bottle over time. This won't work well - see this link for an explanation and also see the description of extraction, elsewhere in this article.

Hot water extracts

In line with our other mushroom extracts, we wanted a Reishi product with the full spectrum of bioactives, in particular because, as said before, our research showed that what sets Reishi apart from other medicinal mushrooms is the combination of bioactive beta-glucans and triterpenes, several of which are only found in Reishi.

Triterpenes are alcohol solubles, so all hot-water-only extracts could be discarded as well - hot water extracts do not contain the non-water solubles (triterpenes, sterols) in a bioavailable form. Rule of thumb: If the triterpenes are not specified on the label you better look elsewhere: such a Reishi product offers almost no -if any- Reishi-specific effects because the triterpenes are not present. That's basic logic.

Filtering these out took care of a lot of the remaining (mostly cheaper) extracts but, surprisingly, also included all Japanese Reishi products. Japanese Reishi products are without exception all very expensive but offer surprisingly little value for money (for more info about how to determine the value for money, check the first entry on this page with articles).
For some reason the Japanese only use hot water extraction. On top of that many add huge levels of additives and fillers - more about that later. Despite their reputation (the result of good marketing), Japanese Reishi products have little to offer.

Supplement containing hot water extracted Reishi - the Reishi fraction is standardised at 10% polysaccharides. Polysaccharides are not a good quality marker as a matter of fact. Only beta-glucans are bioactive polysaccharides; starch, chitin, celulose, dextrin etc. are also polysaccharides but without therapeutic potential.

None of these sellers pointed out the limitations of their hot water extract (no triterpenes). Many were actually emphasising the Reishi triterpenes on their websites as a reason to buy Reishi(!)

In fact, the sellers offering non-extracted or biomass products were doing exactly the same. More proof that reading the -governmentally supervised- supplement facts label is essential if you want to spend your money wisely. Even better: ask for a Certificate of Analysis !

Dual -full-spectrum- extracts

With the non-extracted products and the hot-water-only extracts filtered out there were still quite a few Reishi extracts left in the competition.

One of the best competitors (probably the best - we were not able to find a more potent product) was a product called ReishiMax ($ 1.25 - 1.48 per gelatin capsule). The specifications show 13.5% polysaccharides and 6% triterpenes. (Nobody is specifying the beta-glucan fraction, like ORIVeDA does).

ORIVeDA's specifications (over 15% beta-glucans and over 6 % triterpenes) are significantly better in comparison, and the value for money is twice as good: $0.63 per vegetarian capsule.

The HongKong Consumer Council compared 26 Reishi supplements several years ago (Choice magazine #286, August 15, 2000), to determine their value for money.

Choice magazine is the leading publication dedicated to consumers' interests in Hong Kong

The amount of polysaccharides (excluding starch and dietary fibers) was used as a basis. All products were tested in an independent laboratory, because only 4 out of 26 actually specified the percentage of polysaccharides on their label. None of the supplements mentioned triterpenes.

Two of these four contained only around 3/5 of the indicated amount. The supplements ranged in price from $2.84 to $89.

Using the determined percentage of polysaccharides as a guide, the price differences were just baffling; ranging from a modest $ 4.39 to a whopping $ 365.10 per gram polysaccharides, meaning a price difference of about 83 times!!

The majority of the remaining Reishi products (that might be dual extracted - this is not always clear) are not specifying bioactives on their supplement facts label, but are using unverifiable statements like '15:1 extract' instead. This can be considered a potentially deceiving 'quality marker': it only indicates a reduction in mass or volume, nothing more.

There is also no way to verify a claim like this. Simply drying and powdering a mushroom can already achieve a 10:1 ratio, because the main component (up to 90%) of mushrooms is water. Common sense tells us that unless it is backed up with further specifications this is no reliable indication of quality.

The reason why this 'ratio-indicator' is nevertheless used a lot soon became clear to us, though, when we were looking for a reliable supplier and investigated their extraction procedures - see below.

Example of a 'ratio' extract. If you read this label fully it also tells you (but does not guarantee you: the statement is not in the 'facts' box!) that it is a 10% polysaccharide extract.
It also -deceivingly- suggests the presence of other constituents like triterpenes, but these are not bioavailable because this is just a basic hot water extract.

Suppliers

Most suppliers do cut some corners while trying to find a balance between quality and price. Their main motivation is usually 'the cheaper the better', not the therapeutic quality of the product.

Instead of using Reishi fruiting bodies grown on wood logs (considered the best method) they use fruiting bodies grown on sawdust or rice-grown mycelia (mycelia = the mushroom's 'roots'). Some actually do use the wood log method ('duanwood Reishi') but then use a flawed extraction method to cut costs (see the 'Extraction' paragraph; below).

The products resulting from these methods are at best a compromise both in terms of active ingredients and therapeutic potential. However, they are cheap, in particular the biomass-method (aka 'solid state cultivation') produces cheap source material, because mycelia develop exceptionally fast. Smart marketing, taking advantage of the average consumers ignorance is then used to make up for the lack of verifiable therapeutic quality.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. - Leonardo da Vinci

Extraction

Reishi has a very low yield of triterpenes, much lower then e.g. Chaga, a similar 'woody' mushroom. To get a good percentage of triterpenes AND a good percentage of beta-glucans, lengthy, labor intensive and therefore expensive multi-step extraction procedures are needed. (We leave hot water-only extracts out of the discussion - these are a compromise per definition, as explained before.)

Many producers of dual extracts, however, also make compromises during the extraction phase to keep the production costs low: they use e.g. a mix of water/ethanol to perform the extraction - the higher the percentage of ethanol in the mix, the higher the percentage of triterpenes and the lower the percentage of beta-glucans, and vice versa.

This single-step extraction works reasonably well but it results in a relatively crude extract with low purity. These 'dual extracts' are usually marketed as 'xx : 1' extracts - the actual percentages of beta-glucans/triterpenes are low and fluctuate significantly between production batches, so for competitive and legal reasons for the vendor it is better to leave such details out.

Instead, a lot of emphasis is placed on the fact that this is 'duanwood Reishi' or a similar property.

Chinese engineers at work in an extraction room

Determining beta-glucan and triterpene percentages in an analytical laboratory is not expensive at all. A high level of these quality markers on the supplement facts label is an unbeatable selling point. Logic tells us the only reason not to specify those percentages is because the outcome is less than impressive. The vendor chooses to keep it vague, for marketing reasons.

Recent research also revealed quite a few supplements sold as Reishi in fact are something else entirely.

The best (but also the most expensive) option is a three step extraction process, with hot water and ethanol extraction executed separately, followed by alcohol precipitation. The first two steps step can be repeated several times, if necessary.

The hot water extraction should ideally be performed under pressure, because extended exposure to heat will cause disintegration of the polysaccharides' molecular chains over time, rendering them therapeutically useless. Performing the hot water extraction under pressure (16-20 kg/cm2) prevents this from happening, resulting in a high yield of bioactive beta-glucans. A third step (essential for a high grade of purity) is alcohol precipitation, which is removing low molecular weight polysaccharides, useless protein, ash, etc.

ORIVeDA is using this state-of-the-art multi-step extraction protocol, followed by spray-freeze-drying to ensure no ethanol/alcohol residue is left and a finely powdered extract with a high bioavailability and purity will be the result.

Additives

Specifications of a Japanese Reishi product. A 13:1 'extract'.

Additives are listed, but surprisingly none of the Reishi quality markers, such as triterpenes, beta-glucans or polyphenols are specified

Triterpenes are oily and a high percentage (over ± 8%) will cause problems when the desired result is a stable powdered extract.

To prevent this suppliers add e.g. dextrin, malt-dextrin or starch to the product, usually just before the drying phase. These additives are polysaccharides but without therapeutic value. This makes it clear once again why polysaccharides are not a reliable quality indicator. It's obvious how easy it is to spike a mushroom supplement with useless polysaccharides without breaking the law. You pay for 20% polysaccharides, you get 20% polysaccharides, correct ? Most of the time these additives are not specified on the label.

We've seen Reishi products where up to 30% of dextrin had been added. The supplement facts label stated "35% polysaccharides" which is accurate in itself but leaves out the fact that these are mostly just useless sugar (dextrin).

A specific Japanese -hot water- extract (Toi Reishi) contains only 25% of Reishi extract and 75% of dextrin! At ± $ 1 per capsule (@ 250mg) not really good value for money, at least in our opinion.

There is a simple DIY-test for those that want to test for this adulteration themselves: open a capsule and mix the extract powder with a bit of cooled down boiled water to make a liquid solution. Then add a few drops of pure iodine. If the solution changes color (blue, red) it contains non-mushroom polysaccharides.

Another additive often found in Reishi is Maltitol, a mild sweetener, which is probably added to mask the intensely bitter taste of a Reishi extract. Many, if not all of the cheaper Reishi extracts (but also all very expensive Japanese Reishi products we know of) contain dextrin and/or Maltitol or some other sweetener. Lactose, sucrose and rice powder are also very common. Lactose is rendering bioactive polyphenols useless, making it even more questuionable as an additive.

Synthetic acids are sometimes added to increase the level of triterpenes in Reishi. Measuring triterpenes can be done in a laboratory using spectrography (UV/VIS) and specific synthetic acids will show up in the same spectrum as the Reishi triterpenes when tested. That shows UV/VIS is not a reliable method for measuring triterpenes. If you request and receive a third party test report (Certificate of Analysis), make sure triterpnes were measured using HPLC, which is the preferable method.

We know spiking is used by several producers to improve their product specifications and their profit margin - although this is pure fraud. The low price is usually a giveaway - it is impossible, even in a low income country like China, to produce a good quality Reishi extract for only a few dollars. Recent research also revealed quite a few supplements sold as Reishi in fact are something else entirely.
Some producers will even admit it when asked directly.

What about Reishi spore products ?

Broken spore and the spore oil products are relatively new Reishi products.
They are described as containing 'the essence of Reishi's therapeutic power', so these were one of the first options we investigated when we started to look for a Reishi product.

A Reishi spore is tiny: 5-8 microns in size, only visible with a microsope. Each spore contains a microscopic amount of 'spore oil', mostly triterpenes.

You'll need about 1000 kg Reishi mushrooms to collect 1 kg of spores. The spores are 'cracked' and the oil extracted using something called 'supercritical CO2 extraction'. This is an expensive process and the yield is very very low. Around 20,000 kg of Reishi is needed for 1 liter of spore oil.

Spore products are therefore always very expensive. Three to four dollars for a small capsule is about the absolute minimum. If you're charged less, it is most likely a non-pure or plain fake product.

We decided not to include Reishi spore products in our product line, the main reason being that the bioavailability of isolated triterpenes is low. See this meta-review. The solubility is almost zero, making absorption by the body (and therefore an actual therapeutic effect) questionable when taken orally. Questionable, also because almost no research has been done so far with spore oil products (we couldn't find anything at all, to be honest) and in both China and Japan these products are therefore frowned upon.

Another reason to be cautious is the amount of fraudulent products on the market, because so far there is no objective quality standard for spore products.

A Reishi spore (magnification ±40.000) and, on the right, after it has been 'cracked' using supercritical CO2 extraction

The Hong Kong Consumer council tested 16 Reishi spore products (Choice magazine #375, January 2008). All claimed over 99% of broken spores (higher is better) but half of them had only a fraction of the indicated broken spore rate - the lowest was 5% instead of 99.9%.
Six of the samples claimed to be 100% Reishi spores without any additives, but when analysed were found to contain Reishi mycelia, fillers and vitamin E(!), none of which were listed on the label. Furthermore, several samples contained much less than the indicated quantity per capsule. One sample was spoiled and contained oxidized oil.

Also, already in 2005 the Consumer Council issued a report describing among others the case of an eldery patient that developed liver poisoning after daily consumption of a Reishi broken spore product for a month. This is most likely just an incident and one does not know what exactly did happen and whether or not this connection is justified, but despite that, we believe it's better to be safe than sorry.

Which is why ORIVeDA decided to stick with a therapeutically proven useful, well-researched, time tested and reliable full-spectrum product that provides significant more value for money and covers a broader therapeutic spectrum than a broken spore product.

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