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Leep Foods grows super 'shrooms

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There's a new culinary fungi game in town focused on serving nutritional, medicinal, and environmental interests.

That emergent company, Leep Foods, is based in a 5,000 square foot warehouse across the Genesee River from Rochester Institute of Technology, and it supplies its products to area restaurants and Wegmans stores. It currently specializes in two kinds of mushrooms: the Coral Maitake, which is commonly known as "hen of the woods" for its textural resemblance to chicken meat, and the pearlescent-skinned Blue Oyster.

In October, Leep Foods is collaborating with three different restaurants to present mushroom-centered dining experiences. The events aim to educate the public about the company and the benefits of mushrooms as delicious, organic superfoods.

"There's a growing number of people who are interested in mycology, who are thinking about the mushroom kingdom and what it has to offer," says George Zheng, Leep Foods' co-founder and chief operating officer.

Zheng forages far and wide for mushrooms, and has taken trips as far as the Amazon Rainforest to discover the diversity of species. For example, on a trip to Columbia his group found a Shitake that had this strong aroma of garlic, he says.

"There's still a lot that we don't know about this kingdom," he says.

Leep Foods is engaged in what Zheng calls high-tech farming. The warehouse functions essentially as an indoor farm and laboratory where the team keeps a careful temperature, light, and humidity balance at different stages of growing. They experiment with different hardwood substrates (sawdust) that are inoculated with the fungi spores, which allows them to tinker with the flavor outcome.

"It's labor intensive, it's early mornings, late nights, long weekends," Zheng says. "Mushrooms don't really wait for anybody; when they're ready, they're ready."

The Leep Foods team works with biologists to pursue evidence-based health and nutritional benefits of mushrooms on the molecular level, an approach that's similar to that of the growing cannabidiol (CBD) industry. Mushrooms are rich in antioxidants, beta glucans, and minerals, Zheng says.

Zheng has an engineering degree from RIT, but he stumbled into his current work after becoming intrigued by the concept of using undervalued waste streams to grow medicinal mushrooms. He and Chris Carter — with whom he co-founded Leep Foods — started Empire Medicinals with RIT professor Carl Lundgren and Sweetwater Energy founder Jerry Horton. (Sweetwater produces sugars and lignin fiber from non-food plant materials).

"Sweetwater had a waste stream problem — their lignin wasn't being utilized, and we tried to do something about that," Zheng says. "What intrigued me, as an engineer, was looking at the mushroom industry not from a purely scientific perspective but from a scaling perspective. Science for the sake of science is important, but for me it's how do you take the latest in science and technology and benefit and build a better world? Mushrooms kept calling to me."

Both of Zheng's parents are doctors, "trained in a different modality of medicine in China" he says. And they influenced and supported his interest in the potential of the food-as-medicine trend, and also standardizing herbal medicine.

"With herbal medicine, there's quite a bit of pseudo-science, and the challenge is, how do you modernize it?" Zheng says. "But the fact that it's been passed down through centuries and hasn't been thrown out, that means there's a lot of value there. So there's a translational challenge: how do you take Western scientific tools to try to understand the molecular functioning of why certain herbal medicines are good?"

The Empire Medicinals team decided it was getting ahead of itself with the goals to standardize herbal medicine. But it did realize that it could help push the American mushroom industry forward, and Leep Foods was born.

Zheng says he thinks the future of medicine is "targeting unmet clinical needs not just with one compound and one target, but with polypharmacy," he says. "The time is right to be thinking about the future of complex herbal medicine, but Leep Foods is not there yet. We realize there is an important job to be done in first familiarizing Americans with more exotic natural products, almost Trojan-horsing in health benefits because it's really delicious. That's really the first step."

The first October Mushroom Takeover event happens on Monday, October 15, at Bar Bantam, with following events at The Owl House, and Han Noodle in later weeks. Learn more and find recipes suggestions at leepfoods.com.

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