When I tell people I went shrooming in Finland earlier this year, I get a lot of raised eyebrows. But the mushrooms I experienced in Lapland, Finland, weren’t of the psychoactive variety—rather, they’re amazing superfoods, and as I soon discovered, almost everyone in Finland is in on the secret.
In America, however, their health benefits are still relatively under-the-radar, and they’re relegated to existence in one of two fairly divisive food groups. You either love their woodsy, earthy taste or you hate it, and those in the latter camp can easily avoid them in traditional American cuisine without feeling like they’re really missing out on anything.
Plus, there’s the whole toxicity thing that makes them feel a bit forbidden. Considering there are certain kinds of fungi that can literally kill you when consumed, they’re not regarded as the friendliest food—as in, if I were foraging in the wood, I’d be much more likely to pop a handful of juicy berries in my mouth than a scary-looking fungus.
But what if I told you that the benefits of mushrooms are more mind-blowing than you could ever imagine and that there are ways to consume them so that they don’t taste so, well, mushroomy?
What Are Chaga Mushrooms?
When skincare brand Origins invited me to icy Lapland, Finland, to learn more about its Mega Mushroom line, developed with the famed physician Andrew Weil, I didn’t think twice. Sure, my frail L.A. disposition balks at temperatures below 60 degrees, but who cares? I was ready to hang out with reindeer and catch a glimpse of the northern lights—and immerse myself in a magic mushroom world, of course.
On the second day of the trip, I ended up speaking with Jaako, a mycologist who is extremely passionate about the power of mushrooms. He told me that Finnish people don’t just consume any type of mushroom in the name of better health and longer life. No, their discerning palettes and dispositions rely on one specific mushroom, which is often called the “king of mushrooms” in the northern parts: chaga, or as it’s scientifically known, Inonotus obliquus.
Here’s the thing about chaga: It grows on birch trees, which only exist in the northern hemispheres, and it thrives in only super-harsh, cold environments, which is why is ends up having super anti-viral properties. In one study carried out in Russia, scientists analyzed a multitude mushroom types in the forest for their antiviral properties, and guess which fungi came out in first place? Chaga, of course.
This resilient mushroom, as it turns out, doesn’t really look like a mushroom at all. If I had to compare it to anything, I’d probably say it looks mostly like a lump of coal. Like, Finnish children everywhere probably cry Christmas morning when they find chaga in their stockings even if, in reality, their parents just want them to have a long and healthy life! Another interesting thing I found out from Jaako is that all mushrooms that grow on trees are medicinal—so, there is no such thing as a toxic tree mushroom that will poison you if you eat it.
“If you pick a mushroom from the ground, you need to know what you’re doing,” Jaako warned. “If you pick a mushroom growing from a tree, the possibility of it being harmful is almost nothing.” File that way as useful information for the next time you’re stranded in a forest.
How to Use Chaga Mushrooms
Just like there are certain foods we associate with health here in the U.S. (gluten-free avocado toast, anyone?), in Finland, mushrooms are interchangeable with healthcare. But what about all the Finnish people who hate the taste of mushrooms? As it turns out, part of the reason chaga became huge in Finland is because it’s easy to incorporate into your diet, Jaako explains.
“Most people take it as chaga tea,” he says. How? It’s as easy as buying chaga powder at the local Finnish supermarket—then you simply stir it into hot water and make it into a tea. I tried chaga tea from the mushroom-focused brand Four Sigmatic during my time in Finland and can say the taste is coffee-esque—there definitely isn’t any strong mushroom flavor, so it’s a way to incorporate the benefits even if you hate the taste of mushrooms.
The Benefits of Chaga Mushrooms
In terms of benefits, there are many. “There’s a lot of science on the benefits of mushrooms, even more so than berries and other herbs” Jaako says. “Taking chaga internally can help with skin problems like psoriasis, and there’s science to support the claim that it helps the gut-brain-skin axis. If you’re healing your gut, you’re healing your skin, and chaga helps your microbiome.”
Jaako himself has been drinking chaga tea every day for the past decade and swears he hasn’t been sick once the entire time. “From consuming chaga, I’m confident to say that mushrooms in general are good for your immune system,” he declared to me as I nodded along and sipped my chaga tea.
In the book Healing Mushrooms: A Practical and Culinary Guide to Using Mushrooms for Whole Body Health, author Tero Isokauppila (who also happens to be the founder of Four Sigmatic, the brand that made the chaga tea I consumed, and is friends with Jaako—the mushroom community is a tight knit one) recommends using chaga to “ward off the common cold, have shiny, thick hair and glowing skin, and lower inflammation caused by a busy, stressful life.” He goes on to talk about how chaga is also one of the single richest sources of antioxidants found in nature. One dose of dual-extracted chaga (the typical amount found in a cup of chaga tea) has the same number of antioxidants as 30 pounds of carrots.
When it comes to your skin, specifically, Isokauppila cites chaga as having incredible skin-protecting properties, containing “more antioxidant superoxide dismutase (SOD), zinc, and melanin than any other single natural source.” He writes about how two of the world’s most renowned snowboarders, Terje Håkonsen and Nicolas Müller, use chaga to protect their faces, which are exposed to the sun high on mountains with little to no shade; basically, consuming it as an extra, internal layer of protection from the sun—and they swear it works.
Chaga In Skincare
But what about applying chaga topically as part of your skincare regimen? I asked Jaako point-blank if he thought there was any real benefit, and he swore there was. “Evolutionarily, they produce antibiotic properties, so if you apply them to the skin, they still fight infections off,” he explained matter-of-factly.
I learned that Weil had actually introduced the healing properties of mushrooms to Origins over a decade ago, and the line has quickly become a top seller because of its ability to soothe and protect the skin from the elements and free radicals. In 2018, the brand upgraded the formula by using probiotic technology, adding fermentation, and including a new mushroom called coprinus. Other than chaga and coprinus, the line also includes reishi and cordyceps, two other “super mushrooms” with health benefits that I won’t get into, but you should research if you’re interested because it’s fascinating stuff. I've found their Mega Mushroom Treatment Lotion ($34) made me skin feel especially soothed and refreshed after a hot sauna session.
So, there you have it. Mushrooms might be the most overlooked superfood ever, and I’m predicting it’s only a matter of time before they become more mainstream in the U.S. Speaking of which, I’m feeling a cold coming on, so I’m going to whip up some chaga tea—if Jaako is telling the truth, I’ll be waking up feeling 100%.
Glamočlija J, Ćirić A, Nikolić M, et al. Chemical characterization and biological activity of Chaga (Inonotus obliquus), a medicinal "mushroom". J Ethnopharmacol. 2015;162:323‐332. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2014.12.069