Lion's Mane: The Mushroom of the Moment
This popular mushroom has potential health benefits and can also make a satisfying meal
What can you find in the produce section of some grocery stores, the supplement aisle, in certain varieties of coffee, on the menu at your local restaurant, and maybe even on a log in your backyard? If you guessed lion’s mane mushrooms, then you’re hip to one of the latest food trends.
"Lion’s mane is in the spotlight due to a number of reasons," says mycologist Paul Stamets, who has written six books about mushrooms, sells mushroom-based supplements, and has a 2008 TED Talk called “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.” He also appears in the 2019 documentary Fantastic Fungi.
The market for mushrooms for food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and other purposes is thriving, too. According to a market analysis report by Grand View Research, the global mushroom market size was valued at $50.3 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow by nearly 10 percent annually to 2030.
We spoke with Stamets and other experts about lion’s mane’s popularity, its history as a medicinal food, and its uses today.
What Are Lion's Mane Mushrooms?
Appearance: While lion’s mane is often referred to as one mushroom, there are three different species. Hericium erinaceus is the most commonly sold, and it looks sort of like a white pom-pom.
Taste and texture: When it comes to flavor, texture, and nutritional content, fresh lion’s mane mushrooms can be a wonderful addition to meals. "The mushroom flavor is mild, and the texture, while not exactly crab, is pretty close," says Alan Bergo, a forager and chef based in Minnesota.
Mineral content: "Similar to other mushrooms, lion’s mane mushrooms are a good source of certain essential minerals such as potassium, zinc, and manganese and several B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin," says Amy Keating, RD, a nutritionist at Consumer Reports.
Use in supplements: You can also get your lion’s mane fix as powders, which you can add to beverages such as coffee; in capsules; and in gummies. Some supplements are made of extracts from the fruiting body (the part that grows above ground), while others are from the mycelium (the root-like structure that grows below ground and is instrumental in supporting the ecosystem). Many of these supplements claim to offer brain and nerve support.
Potential Benefits of Lion's Mane Mushrooms
Preliminary research has suggested that consuming lion’s mane mushrooms may be linked to better brain health and reduced symptoms of depression. In studies in rodents, the mushrooms have also promoted longevity and protected against gastric ulcers. But research in humans is limited and more study is needed to determine the potential health benefits for people.
While lion’s mane mushrooms aren’t used in conventional medicine—and aren’t a replacement for conventional medical treatments—some nutritionists recommend them as a complement to more conventional treatments.
"I don’t use lion’s mane separately," says nutritionist Janet Zarowitz, MS, RD, CDN. "I use it as part of an immunity support system that may include other mushrooms and foods." She advises anyone thinking about taking a supplement to check with a doctor first.
In terms of side effects, Janet Zand, an Austin-based doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, counsels her patients to stop taking lion’s mane supplements at least two weeks prior to surgery. Two small studies—one on rodents and one in vitro—suggest that lion’s mane may thin the blood, thereby impeding blood clotting.
Shopping for Lion's Mane Supplements
Lack of definitive research hasn’t stopped the proliferation of lion’s mane on the supplements market. Alongside Host Defense, the supplement brand sold by Stamets, many brands have emerged, but not all are created equal. If you’re interested in buying lion’s mane supplements, these tips can help you navigate your options.
Identify authentic products. On Amazon, we found lion’s mane mushroom supplements in capsule, powder, and even gummy form that cost $15 to $53—though of course the price per unit, or per ounce, varies. But when shopping on Amazon, it’s essential to ensure that you’re buying from the manufacturer, and not a third party. You’re more likely to encounter counterfeit products when buying through a third party than when shopping the brand directly, and when it comes to supplements that could be especially dangerous. To be certain that you’re getting the right product, it’s better to go directly to the manufacturer’s website and buy from there.
Look for a third-party seal. "The supplements that are doing clinical research, or third-party testing for quality assurance, are going to be more expensive. You’re paying for quality," says Zarowitz, the nutritionist. Look for a seal from a legitimate third party, like U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP). For more information on third-party seals, learn how to choose supplements wisely.
Buy organic. If you’re on a supplement manufacturer’s website, read up on how the company makes its product. Where does it get the mushrooms? Is the product certified organic? Because certain heavy metals can be present in soil, some certified organic products may contain as much heavy metal contamination as conventional products. Still, it’s important to buy certified organic mushrooms to avoid other contaminants, such as pesticides. To avoid contaminants, Stamets recommends that consumers ensure that the mushrooms they’re getting aren’t coming from China. "The air pollution in China is notorious," Stamets says. "The pollutants are constantly raining down on the ecosystem, contaminating the food chains and aquifers. Mushrooms—since they are composed of about 90 percent water—uptake many of these toxins."
Making Lion's Mane Mushrooms Into a Meal
Depending on your location, lion’s mane can be found at stores such as Whole Foods and Wegman’s, on Fresh Direct, and at some specialty Asian markets. Keep in mind that lion’s mane is a specialty item, so you may pay upward of $10 per pound of mushrooms.
"Fresh mushrooms (fruitbodies) should be cooked to liberate their nutrients," says Stamets, "Raw, uncooked mushrooms pass largely undigested."
Lion’s mane, like other types of mushrooms, are also a good meat analogy, meaning that in terms of texture and taste, it can be a great substitute for meat in a dish. Keep in mind, however, that nutritionally, mushrooms are much lower in protein than meat, so you may want to pair them with a plant-based protein source.
"It’s pretty common around the world," chef Bergo says. "In Mexico, for example, I’ve seen chefs cook up mushrooms just like they would meat, wrap them in a tortilla, and eat them just like that."
There are a few tricks to getting the rich, umami flavor that mushrooms are known for.
"Mushrooms contain a lot of water," says Bergo. "So if you just put oil in a pan and add mushrooms, they can be heavy and kind of soggy, but if you put a little water in the pan, put a lid on it, and cook the mushrooms until they’ve relaxed, the water will be released."
Then you cook the water off, he says, and add your fat—oil or butter, typically—and cook them until they’re nice and crispy and brown.
"Mushrooms taste better when you brown them," Bergo says. "Browning them gives caramel notes like a good charred steak—although you don’t want to char mushrooms, golden brown is perfectly fine."
He also adds that mushrooms are really good in soup, and you don’t need to brown them at all. "Lion’s Mane in particular are great in soup, they’re kind of like little dumplings."
Foraging for Lion’s Mane Mushrooms
If you’re willing to put in some work, you don’t have to pay upward of $10 a pound for fresh lion’s mane mushrooms at the store because you may be able to find them in nature for free.
Most common in the northeastern United States, lion’s mane mushrooms have been found growing on trees by foragers throughout the northern part of the country.
To get started, and to avoid eating something toxic, Bergo recommends going out with a forager in your area. "Your local mycological society is a great resource." He adds that foraging guidebooks and Facebook groups for foragers are also ways to get a sense of what mushrooms are available in your area.
Of course, when it comes to picking mushrooms in the wild, one fear many people have is picking a poisonous one. Bergo says that’s not very likely, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that “people should not eat wild mushrooms unless an expert identifies them as safe.” Eating poisonous mushrooms leads to about 1,400 emergency department visits per year. Stamets cautions that mushrooms are best foraged in unpolluted areas—so don’t go picking mushrooms in your city park. The books "Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World" and "Growing Gourmet & Medicinal Mushrooms," both by Stamets, can offer additional guidance.
Growing Lion's Mane Mushrooms
If foraging isn’t for you, another option is to grow your own.
"Lion’s mane is one of the faster mushrooms to fruit and easier to grow," says John Pecchia, PhD, the manager at the Mushroom Research Center at Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences. "It’s growing in popularity but most people still have no idea what it is."
The easiest way to grow your own mushrooms is to buy a kit online from a reputable supplier, meaning directly from a mushroom kit company, such as North Spore or Far West Fungi, and not a third-party retailer such as eBay. Pecchia says that the standard kit has a 4- or 5-pound block of substrate (the material from which the mushroom grows) about the size of a loaf of bread.
You can expect several "flushes" (the mushroom crop) from a single block. No need to "plant" the substrate anywhere but your kitchen counter, ideally out of direct sunlight. Most kits will instruct you to spritz the substrate at least twice daily, or more if you are in a dry climate.
"The biggest challenge for most people trying to grow mushrooms at home is the need for a moist environment," says Pecchia. He suggests keeping it in the kitchen away from direct sunlight and airflow. Even better, some companies provide what is almost a little tent, like an oversized bag, that acts as a sort of greenhouse. People who do this as a hobby sometimes have a tiny plastic enclosed shelving system that acts as a tabletop greenhouse.