It is understood that human beings have constantly searched for new substances that can improve biological functions and make people fitter and healthier. Recently , Western society has turned to plants, herbs and foods as sources of these enhancers. These products have been called, variously: vitamins, dietary supplements, functional foods, phytochemicals, nutraceuticals ( Brower,1998 and Zeisel, 1999) and nutriceuticals (Chang and Buswell, 1996) Edible mushrooms can be taken regularly as part of food and treated as healthy foods or functional foods. The extractable products from medicinal mushrooms, designed to supplement the human diet but not used as a regular food, are for the enhancement of health and fitness and can be classified into the category of dietary supplements. Dietary supplements are ingredients extracted from foods, herbs and plants that are taken without further modification outside of foods for their presumed health-enhancing benefits (DSHEA, Public Law103-417, 1994,USA). The industries involved in providing these substances are expanding in the United States. In 1990, US diet-supplement sales were valued at US$3.3 billion; in 1992, US$3.7 billion; in 1994, US$5.0 billion; in 1996, US$6.5 billion; in 1998, US$12.0 billion; and in the year 2000 , it is estimated to be US$14.0 billion (Zeisel, 1999).

For the last two decades, the derivatives from medicinal mushrooms, e.g., Ganoderma lucidum , Coriolus versicolor and Lentinula edodes etc, have received great attention for being products of improving biological functions, thus making people fitter and healthier. In some cases, these dietary supplements were used in the prevention and treatment of various human diseases. Furthermore, these products are without troublesome side effects that frequently accompany the synthetic drugs traditionally used for these purposes. As an example, cancer patients suffer severe pain even after the treatments of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. However, constantly intake of good quality Ganoderma nutriceuticals will likely reduce the requirement of drugs. At the same time due to the enhancement of the immune systems, it can help people to reduce the possibility of being affected by diseases. The market value of mushroom dietary supplement products worldwide is about US$5-6 billion per year (Wasser et al., 2000). The market value of Ganoderma mushroom-based dietary supplements alone in 1995 was estimated at US$1,628.4 million ( Chang and Buswell, 1999). No less is for the products of another famous mushroom, Lentinula edodes.

There is no doubt that mushroom-based products can serve as superior dietary supplements, particularly, the Ganoderma products, which have been used as a dietary supplement or medicinal food in China for over 2000 years. Exactly how these products work is still a matter of conjecture, but numerous both laboratory and human trials have shown again and again that they are effective. People unfamiliar with the field may ask that if this mushroom has such beneficial effects, why don’t chemists isolate the active component so that it can be marked as a drug? The answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If it is yes, the main focus is on single active component of the mushroom, and on certain diseases, e.g. cancers or stroke. The products are prescription drugs. If the answer is no, the main focus is on a group of compounds, and on quality of life. The products are dietary supplements, and are not single active component, instead, are many of them. They all contribute to the beneficial effect of the mushroom. For an example, the protection against cancer afforded by Ganoderma products could be attributed to several compounds present in Ganoderma; the tetero-(-glucans, lectins, terpenoids, steroids, nucleic acids and immunomodulatory proteins such as Ling Zhi-8. It seemed that these compounds, and possibly other compounds yet to be identified in Ganoderma contribute concertedly to the anticancer, antitumour, antiviral, antibacterial and immunomodulating properties of Ganoderma. It could be tentatively concluded that mushroom nutriceuticals are of multifunctional values with concerted effects. The situation is just like a good orchestra contributed harmoniously by many different instruments, but is not a solo performance by any single instrument. However, the problems that mushroom-based dietary supplements are so diverse, and there are currently no standard protocols for guaranteeing their product quality and critical testing. There is serious need for improved quality and legal control which are essential both to increase and maintain consumer confidence, and to meet current and future standards set by the regulatory authorities (Chang and Buswell, 1999). This seems to be a reasonable requirement in protecting public health. Therefore, to obtain a good quality and trustworthy product is of paramount importance.

In retrospect and prospect for the new millennium, the achievements in the research and production of edible and medicinal mushrooms during the last two decades give documentary evidence that Ganoderma mushrooms can have so much to offer the health-care system for human beings in the 21st century. In many areas where modern medicines may find it difficult to provide remedies, their tasks would be alleviated with the helpful assistance by mushroom nutriceuticals. It should be noted, in some cases, that prevention of diseases may be more beneficial to everyone rather than the curing of diseases. This does not only have positive financial and social impacts but also can maintain or even improve an individual’s quality of life and human dignity.

by Professor S. T. Chang, Emeritus Professor of Biology, Director, Centre for International Service to Mushroom Biotechnology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin , N. T. Hong Kong


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