These Legendary Wellness Founders Believe the Future Is Fungi

Erica Huss and Zoe Sakoutis are back with Earth & Star.

earth & star founders

If you haven’t heard of Zoe Sakoutis and Erica Huss, you probably have heard of their first company: BluePrint Cleanse. The famous (and now defunct) juicing program launched back in 2007, quickly spreading like wildfire across the health and wellness industries, gaining fans in celebrities like Blake Lively and Sarah Jessica Parker as well. And though detoxing in all its forms (and controversy) is still going strong, a lot has changed since Sakoutis and Huss sold the company in December 2012. Part of said change is a veritable resurgence in more holistic and ancient wellness practices that revere long-used herbs and pants like ginger, turmeric, and mushrooms. The latter, in particular, are what Sakoutis and Huss are focusing on in their latest endeavor, aptly named Earth & Star: organic, mushroom-powered, plant-based beverages, bars, and tinctures that truly showcase the force of fungi.

“We were both using functional mushrooms and really finding that although there was major efficacy and results being experienced for both of us, whether for sleep or for concentration and memory, we felt like there wasn't really a product or a brand on the market that reached us the way that we would want to be reached,” Huss tells TZR. “And then as an extension, reaching people in a user-friendly way. It felt like a very insular conversation.” Some of the mushrooms the brand is harnessing in its concoctions include Lions Mane to support cognitive function and boost concentration, Cordyceps to support the adrenals and increase aerobic capacity, Reishi to help the body to recover and relax overnight, and Chaga, which is rich in antioxidants.

Though mushrooms as a health ingredient is not a new concept, the complex science around their varied powers and uses has not always been readily accessible and available to everyone. That said, Huss and Sakoutis are working on making functional mushrooms less mysterious with simplified ingredient lists displayed right on each can, along with approachable marketing that breaks down and disseminates the benefits in a digestible way. The result is canned beverages and snacks that blend mushrooms with matcha, green tea, oat milk, adaptogens, and so much more.

“For a long time, we've believed in the idea of plants as medicine, preventative health, and the idea of maintaining and finding balance,” says Huss. “So, as a result of that, we were constantly trying everything out there under the sun: new ingredients, new products, and new delivery systems for old ingredients. We interviewed the founder of one of the leading mushroom brands at the time on our podcast and we were super excited to be able to ask the questions we had around the world of functional mushrooms and kick the tires a little bit. It was really just a question of trial and error, trying everything, finding what works, and sticking with it.”

Ahead, Huss and Sakoutis talk about the “shroom boom,” where they think the wellness industry will go in the next few years, their current health and wellness routines, and more.

Courtesy of Earth & Star

You both believe that the future is fungi and that has become quite the popular saying of late. What do you think is driving the current interest in mushrooms?

Huss: There is a veritable shroom boom right now and it’s so exciting for us to see because the functional mushroom category is really starting to gain some traction and response. You have the entire psychedelic movement, which is the application of these fungi in a therapeutic setting that is helping to crack open the world of traditional psychotherapy, psychiatry, and medication. And it's exciting to see that there's so much opportunity in this entire kingdom. Then, you take it a step further and you talk about the ingredients they're using that are also from the mushroom root system to create sustainable packaging and vegan leather. It really does feel like there's endless opportunity here.

Courtesy of Earth & Star

What has it been like for you to see the wellness movement evolve over the past 10-15 years, and what are your thoughts on the state of the space right now?

Huss: When we launched BluePrint in 2007, the word wellness wasn't really something that got thrown around in daily conversation. And now, it really does feel like it’s the foundation and underpinning for every brand and every category. I think some of that has to do with the vast amount of information that is available to us now that wasn't as accessible 15 years ago because social media has also exploded in that time. When we launched BluePrint, social media like Facebook was only for finding your high school friends, and Instagram didn't exist! So, our business was driven solely by word of mouth, which shows you how powerful it was. Since then, the industry has exploded. I think it's a combination of people really starting to do their homework and understand that not everything fed to us by big brands, whether it's pharmaceuticals or ‘Big Food’ is real. People are suffering from lifestyle-oriented diseases based on the food they're eating and the products they're consuming and they’re really starting to understand that.

The whole notion of preventative health is so much more top of mind than it ever has been. People are really understanding for the first time that their immune system is actually the key to preventing disease and illness. In many ways, it was like all of those things coalesced over the last few years, and there has been another explosion of interest in alternative methods to shore up our defenses. Mushrooms have been a huge staple of Eastern cultures for thousands of years and Americans are a little late to the dance, but we're getting there.

Given that mushrooms have been at the foundation of Eastern food and health practices of for so long, how do you maintain your brand’s integrity while respecting and giving credit to the traditions and practices that came before?

Huss: We certainly lean on the people that are experts in this field: practitioners who have adopted our product and embraced what we're doing. By doing our homework and finding what works for us, we're now coming to you to say, ‘OK, this is something that you need to know about and here's the history.’ We offer so much information on our website and we like to dig very, very deep into the science. We have a whole blog section that has all sorts of storytelling from different types of research, including Cordyceps mushrooms’ recognition by Chinese healers thousands of years ago, as well as a foraging guide that helps you identify different edible mushrooms while out and about in nature. And then we've got a whole section where you can just dig into our white paper report all about the science behind our products. For us, it’s really important to paint the full picture and not say, ‘Hey, we invented this thing,’ and forget about the fact that people have been using mushrooms on the other side of the globe for millennia. There is something to be learned and taken from the practices that other cultures have been implementing for so long and it's time for us to understand them and pay attention to them.

How are you taking care of your health right now?

Huss: It is so much about prevention these days. I want to say it always has been, but I think more now than ever. I always try to focus on detoxifying foods and I do tend to look at food as medicine. I think about it in terms of what it's going to do for me, but there’s also plenty of eating for pleasure. There’s a very deep supplement cabinet that I dig into daily and I take everything from algae to seaweed to magnesia. Functional mushrooms have become part of my daily life for years now and I feel it very dramatically once I stop taking them. I can't focus as much, I'm not sleeping as well, and recovery seems longer. They’re really powerful.

We’re so deeply rooted in this world and in this conversation at all times. So I feel like it would be impossible for us to not be adopting, testing, and experimenting all the time. My supplement cabinet certainly runs deep and there's a rotation depending on how I'm feeling, the season, and if I'm going through something specific, such as bouts of bad sleep or stress. We’ve both had issues and incidents over our lives in the last 15 years or so that have certainly caused us to wake up and take stock. So, I adopted a meditation practice about five years ago that I never had before and I'm much more focused on moving every day and sweating every day in some capacity. And food-wise, I'm such a pleasure-seeker that it would be impossible to rule out the oysters and martinis that Zoe and I like to indulge in together. It's about balance. Eighty percent of the time, I'm eating in a plant-based way, and it's not by force because I crave greens. I crave things that are hydrating, filling, and fibrous. And then 20% of the time, I’m game for anything. I feel more balanced mentally and emotionally in taking this approach. Because as we all know, deprivation is not doing anybody any favors, ever.

Mushrooms are obviously buzzy right now. What do you want consumers to know about these magical plants and the products infused with them?

Sakoutis: “There’s a really big debate around the fruiting body of a mushroom and the root structure, which is called mycelium. This is, for the most part, a pretty unregulated space, so a lot of brands out there are taking the mycelium out of the mushroom and calling that mushroom. There are two main problems with that approach. Number one, it's not an actual mushroom and that means the beneficial compounds that we think we're getting are not in there because we're looking for things like polysaccharides and beta-glucans, which provide all the functionality. Mycelium is cheap to grow because you can cultivate it on grain or rice. And that’s problem number two, because a lot of people don't understand that they're eating basically ground up rice or whatever they’re cultivating it on along with the mycelium.

It’s very deceiving and there are a lot of companies putting their marketing spin on it by using phrases like ‘full spectrum’ and claiming ‘we use both mycelium and fruiting body’. Fruiting body just means the actual mushroom and it’s where most of the health benefits of functional mushrooms come from because it’s where most beta-glucans are found. Mycelium does have its advantages as well and it’s being used a lot across different markets as a plant-based meat alternative and as eco-friendly packaging. But it doesn’t have the same physical effects that the fruiting body has and consumers need to look out for that.

We have a problem with this because we're trying to come out with something that is truly therapeutic, has integrity, and has efficacy. We would think others in the space would try and do the same because at the end of the day, if people are using a product that doesn't have an impact on them and they're not feeling better because there aren’t any noticeable benefits, they're not going to take it anymore. So, it brings the whole category down, which is a bad business move.

We wish there was a lot more transparency and honesty around this subject of mushroom versus mycelium. This is why we've dedicated that very important real estate to clinical studies on our website, so you can go in there and actually read what we're talking about. It’s a battle we're facing and we're trying to figure out how to yell it from the mountain tops to make sure people understand what they're actually consuming. We want to encourage them and educate them around reading the ingredient list and understanding the different marketing terms.

Huss: There are always going to be brands that are taking shortcuts and cutting corners so they can save money. It does the whole industry a disservice and I don't know how that comes to an end besides consumers doing their homework and really understanding how to read labels.

The only other thing that we would love to see is a change in social media. The culture of social media influence has gone off the rails, so it’s very hard to understand what you're getting and to separate the real from the bullsh*t. I don't think there's a solution right now, but I think it's something that will eventually play itself out or take a different direction.

Sakoutis: You have to do it with integrity. We're all about capitalism, but you can't be deceiving. You have to make an authentic product that's actually delivering.

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