Mushrooms are emerging from their hiding places on forest floors into the limelight, gaining cultural relevance in recent years and making their way into design and popular culture in everything from tarot decks, illustrations and textile prints, to documentaries and bestselling books. And the trend is not just about their otherworldly aesthetic or fascination with the natural world: mushrooms as functional material are popping up everywhere, as sustainable packaging materials, as alternatives to animal leather, in supplements, and as specialist ingredients giving a boost to everyday products.

Mushrooms are perceived as connected to the earth in a way that humans are not, and this earthiness helps to lend them a sense of mystical, healing properties – as well as the cultural associations with psychedelic mushrooms and contemporary research into their uses medically. Many brands are leaning into this association of a deep connection to nature to offer a sense of untapped natural healing potential. Dirtea is one example, and playfully alludes to the ingredient’s origins in the ground under our feet simply with the name, hinting at the idea of a product that comes from the dirt; whilst this could be seen as undesirable or unclean, paired with minimalist pastel packaging the brand offers up only what is beneficial, but sourced straight from nature to fit into a clean, health conscious diet.

We’ve seen this trend pop up not only in supplements for at-home consumption, but even in venues like coffee shops advertising mushroom products in out of home beverage offerings. Cafés like Black Sheep, for example, are increasingly offering mushroom powder as an addition to everyday staples like latte drinks. Language like “that extra boost of focus you never knew you needed” mirrors some of the benefits of coffee’s caffeine content offering focus and alertness, but highlighting the mysterious benefits of mushrooms that go beyond simple fuel to provide a new kind of self-optimisation and mental functioning.

It’s notable that functional mushrooms are particularly popular as ingredients in traditionally psychoactive drinks, such as alcohol and coffee. Free Soul Wake is one example, an arabica coffee “enriched with functional mushrooms” which, as the name suggests, promises to provide the daily wakefulness and energy of a conventional coffee, but is “your daily ritual, balanced by mushrooms,” as the pack states, promising a less dramatic, gentler, and ultimately more beneficial boost. Likewise Fettle ‘Mind Brew’ which blends the energising benefits of traditional coffee with the subtler, soothing effects of mushroom nootropics. Importantly, however, the appeal of mushrooms is about the intangible benefits they provide – as one Black Sheep Instagram posts promises, “the best thing is you can’t even taste it.” These brands are leaning into the appeal of psychoactive substances (including coffee) and their mental and physiological effects rather than any kind of taste appeal. In many cases we’re seeing the addition of mushroom completely replacing the original alcohol or caffeine, for example alcohol-free beer infused with mushrooms which promises relaxation and mental clarity without the negative impacts of alcohol, or mushroom ‘coffees’ that promise energy without jitters or a crash. Brands in this space are helping consumers with an emotional need above all else, allowing them to not only start their day with energy but also confront the stresses of daily life through the mind-managing effects of mushrooms.

As part of this promised reimagined energy boost, mushroom-infused brands are using imagery and language to showcase that their mental benefits are a clearly future-facing experience, and using nature to go above and beyond the usual realm of human experience. Spacegoods chocolate-flavoured mushroom powder, for example uses typography resembling fonts found on early computer screens, visually referencing an era of innovation and scientific breakthrough, alongside language such as “astro dust v1.0” as though the products are newly discovered substances brought back as samples from a space expedition. And this is all featured on packaging that resembles the freeze-dried food pouches of ‘astronaut food,’ furthering the idea that this is a product to help you reach similar achievements and eye-opening experiences.

Similarly, Collider mushroom-infused non-alcoholic beer uses retro sci-fi and technological imagery to align with the wonder and optimism of mid-century advances in physics, technology, and space travel. Their packs with bold sans-serif fonts, stylised stars, and minimalist, geometric imagery of spheres conveys the imagery of retro sci-fi computer screens and space navigational devices, whilst language on their website like “engage full visualiser” and product naming akin to the naming of stars or project codes (“MK1” or “Lager MK2”) reinforces this association. The name Collider likewise references research facilities like the Large Hadron Collider and scientific advances that have been made there, suggesting an effect that is potentially revolutionary for the consumer. These references to space travel and the science that gets humans into space overall showcase how mushroom-based brands create a productive mental journey. Through these brands, mushroom boosts provide not only exploration and escape, but one that relies on precise thinking and extraordinary knowledge.

Whilst we have been seeing increasing discourse about consumer interest in moving away from alcohol and caffeine consumption, there is at the same time a clear interest in food and drink that offers a shift in mental state, but that also comes with a sense of better-for-you qualities or additional health benefits. Dirtea Coffee’s Instagram bio for example claims to not only improve energy and focus, as a traditional coffee would, but also one’s immunity, skin, calm, and sleep. Mushroom products are offering consumers an opportunity to get a range of health benefits without changing their daily rituals – such as a morning coffee – or feeling a sense of sacrifice, and without having to give up the idea of food and drink to unwind, focus, and find a mood shift.

Whilst not all agree on the true health impacts of these kinds of products, it does reveal that there is a consumer appetite for having the ‘best of both worlds’ when it comes to both daily rituals and occasional treats. Whether with mushrooms or another ‘super’ ingredient, brands have an opportunity to offer consumers ways to live better and find new ways of experiencing the world, while optimising health and wellbeing in the long term.  

3 Key Takeways for Brands:

  1. Mushroom-based food and drink are an opportunity for NPD that can deliver a compelling alternative to ingredients like caffeine and alcohol, providing consumers with desirable mental benefits while aligning with wellness trends.

  2. When developing a new product – using mushrooms or other ingredients with mental/energy benefits – consider how these benefits differ from more familiar forms of uplift or energy and how this can be conveyed through brand identity; there is opportunity to carve out a distinct cultural space drawing on unique visual and language references to show this new consumer experience.

  3. Taking learnings from mushrooms’ seamless integration into daily coffee drinking consider how your wellness product can follow suit: how can it be seamlessly integrated into existing cultural moments and rituals, either pairing with or providing a desirable alternative to the usual fare?

Isobel Grad, Project Director

Mushroom Magic: How brands can leverage mushrooms’ cultural moment