In H. G. Wells’s 1896 short story “The Purple Pileus,” the protagonist attempts to end his life by ingesting fungi; instead of death, he is met with psychedelic visions that help him improve his life. Mushrooms, in the literary imagination and in our physical world, have long been seen as a tool for change — at a point when a person can go no further, these powerful organisms can illuminate an alternate path. And their strength isn’t limited to the psychedelic: Functional mushrooms — species that have been shown to have cognitive, immune system and longevity benefits — have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine to treat a variety of ailments. The second-century text “Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing,” attributed to the mythological Chinese ruler Shen Nong, suggests that reishi mushrooms “may make the body light, prevent senility and prolong life so as to make one an immortal.”
While immortality is not yet on the table, confectionary and wellness brands are tapping into our collective fascination with mushrooms. And many are making these functional ingredients more palatable — and perhaps more potent — by combining them with chocolate to create unusual sweets designed to soothe and heal or, in some cases, provide a barely perceptible buzz.
The pairing of cacao and mushrooms can be traced back thousands of years: Ceremonies in which fungi were mixed with cacao in an attempt to commune with the divine were an integral part of many Mesoamerican cultures. And the combination has been found to have some health benefits, says Isabella Zar, the founder of the California-based wellness brand Fungirl, whose Mane Bar is named after lion’s mane, a mushroom species shown to promote nerve growth in the brain. “The relationship between cacao and mushrooms is symbiotic,” says Zar. “The cacao is a vasodilator,” an agent that widens blood vessels, she continues, “and acts as a carrier for the mushrooms” across the blood-brain barrier, allowing the fungi to take effect. In a crisis-ridden world, revisiting these ancient rituals, and the fungal kingdom as a whole, can yield valuable lessons, suggests Merlin Sheldrake, the author of the book “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures” (2020). “As an interconnected, living network,” he says, “fungi are poster organisms for ecological and circular thinking.”
For Sheldrake, and many fungi enthusiasts, partnering with these organisms offers a real way to reduce our impact on the Earth. “They form an important part of a climate crisis solution,” he says. As fast-growing and relatively low-maintenance crops — many can be grown indoors, with little space, water or labor — fungi present an opportunity to rethink our food system and begin making small shifts toward localized production. This relationship between cultivator and consumer is central to the Mexico City-based fine chocolate atelier Casa Bosques, founded by the architectural designer Rafael Prieto. The brand recently collaborated with Mycelia Lab, a Cuernavaca-based mushroom farm and sustainable development outreach project, to create Mycelium Edition, a collection of four chocolate bars each with distinctive blends of functional mushrooms: Power, for example, features cordyceps, while Mycology mixes pink oyster mushrooms with shiitake.
The Brooklyn-based chocolate company Fine & Raw is similarly committed to working with environmentally conscious growers and has made bars infused with cordyceps, said to have anti-aging properties, and chaga, which reduces inflammation in the body. Reishi, a species known to boost the immune system and guard against fatigue, stars in the Los Angeles-based chocolate brand Compartés’s vegan Healing bar, which also contains freeze-dried raspberries topped with matcha powder. The Portland, Ore.-based Vehicle Chocolates, co-founded by Matt Milletto, Alissa Friedman and Dave Gurley, created its Myco Pollen bar, featuring locally sourced bee pollen and mushrooms like red reishi and chaga, as a tribute to the food journalist Michael Pollan, an advocate of creating a more sustainable food system and the healing power of psilocybin.
Wellness brands are also exploring the mushroom-chocolate pairing: The New York-based Golde, founded by Trinity Mouzon Wofford, offers a latte blend called Shroom Shield that features reishi, cacao powder and turkey tail mushrooms, which are thought to prevent oxidative stress. “We formulated it with a Swiss Miss packet in mind,” says Mouzon Wofford. For a slightly mellower experience, there’s Nightcap, from the New York- and California-based wellnessbrand Alice, named for another touchstone in mushroom lore: Lewis Carroll’s 1865 book “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Packaged in a travel-friendly tin, the bars contain reishi and chamomile and are intended as a soothing bedtime treat.
The line also offers Brainstorm, a blend featuring lion’s mane, for daytime consumption. The company’s founders, Charlotte Cruze and Lindsay Goodstein, have recently seen an increase in their customers enjoying these chocolates socially at gatherings like dinner parties, where they’re passed around as an alternative to stronger substances like alcohol. “In a time where we’ve collectively felt pretty bad,” says Cruze, “people are looking for ways to feel good.”