Caterpillar fungus, the world’s most valuable parasite, can cost up to $63,000 per pound

  • Caterpillar fungus is a hybrid of a fungus that kills and lives in caterpillars.
  • It can sell for up to three times its weight in gold and can cost as much as about $63,000 per pound.
  • Some towns in the Himalayas rely on collecting and selling this fungus for a living.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: What would you do if a fungus invaded your body, and started consuming you from the inside? It sounds like something out of a horror film, but that’s actually what happens to a certain type of baby moth.

The fungus eats its way through the helpless moth larvae and then sprouts out of their heads like a spring daisy. But this rare hybrid, the caterpillar fungus, isn’t just totally fascinating, it’s also expensive. Sometimes selling for more than 3 times its weight in gold!

Caterpillar fungus grows in the remote Tibetan Plateau and Himalayan Mountains but that’s not the only place you can find it. Here we are in New York City’s Chinatown. And nestled among countless drawers of dried mugwort leaves and hibiscus flowers,

There it is a small pile of 50 or so pieces of dried caterpillar fungus. Here, 1 gram of it costs about $30. But even that might be considered a good deal. Vendors on eBay, for example, list a gram for up to $125. The price is so high because this hybrid creature is incredibly rare.

It shows up for only a few weeks each year in remote regions of Nepal, Tibet, India and Bhutan. And even then, the fungus can be tricky for collectors to find, hidden amidst a sea of grass. For centuries, it’s been a staple of traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine.

Kelly Hopping: “Traditionally, it was used as a general tonic, for immune support.”

For instance, a family might add half of this to a chicken soup. And it’s even rumored that it can be used as a sort of Himalayan viagra though there’s little evidence to back it up. People also buy the fungus as a gift or use it for bribes or as a status symbol. As a result, better looking pieces fetch a higher price.

Kelly Hopping: “It’s all dependent on exactly the color of the caterpillar fungus, even the shape of its body when it died, all of these things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with medicinal value make all the difference for the economic value.”

In 2017, for example, high quality pieces sold for as much as $140,000 per kg, or about $63,000 per pound. Now, caterpillar fungus has always been pricey. But experts say its value really skyrocketed in the 1990s and 2000s because of a growing Chinese economy, and the resulting increase in disposable income. Which ultimately, helped drive a massive boom in harvest.

In the Tibet Autonomous Region, for example, collectors reportedly hauled out more than three times as much caterpillar fungus in the early 2000s, than they did in the 1980s. And now, many families depend on the cash it brings in.

In fact, experts say that up to 80% of household income in the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas can come from selling caterpillar fungus. One district in Nepal reported collecting $4.7 million worth of caterpillar fungus in 2016. That’s 12% more than the district’s annual budget! But those profits are at risk.

Surveys indicate that annual harvests have recently declined.

Kelly Hopping: “The collectors themselves mostly attributed this to overharvesting, acknowledging that their own collection pressure was driving these declines.”

And it doesn’t help that it’s difficult to regulate the harvest.

Daniel Winkler: “All these different political units have different policy. In the end, it is really down to county level, how it’s implemented.”

Climate change is also causing problems. You see, the fungus is more abundant in areas with long, cold winters, which are increasingly hard to come by.

Daniel Winkler: “For the rural economy, if there’s a lot of loss, that would be devastating.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in March 2019.

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Why wasabi is so expensive

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Wasabi is a small green plant in the brassica family, that means it’s related to many cheap and easy to find plants like horseradish, cabbage, or broccoli. But unlike these it’s incredibly expensive, a kilogram of fresh wasabi can cost you 25 times as much as fresh horseradish.

Because of its price the “wasabi” you’re used to is probably just a mixture of horseradish, coloring, and sweetener. These products often only have 1-5% of the real thing in.

Wasabi is known for being the hardest plant to grow commercially in the world. It can be found naturally growing alongside Japanese mountain streams has a strict set of conditions it needs to thrive.

Wasabi needs a constant supply of running spring water, it likes a shady area and rocky soil or gravel, and can only tolerate a temperature of around 8-20 degrees centigrade all year round. Too much humidity, or the wrong minerals can also cause problems for the plant and on top of all that it’s susceptible to pests and disease.

There’s one other reason you probably don’t see real wasabi products in your local supermarket or restaurant. Wasabi’s spice comes from a chemical reaction that occurs when you break down the cells, but this reaction is short lived. After 5 minutes the spicy flavour peaks but leave it for 30 minutes and almost all the flavour is gone.

All of these factors mean fake wasabi isn’t going away any time soon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in January 2019.

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Why pule donkey cheese is the most expensive cheese in the world

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Pule donkey cheese is the most expensive cheese in the world. Produced by only one farm in the world, pule will cost you about $600 for a single pound. Making it requires more time and effort than most other cheeses. You need over 6 1/2 gallons of donkey’s milk just to make 1 kilogram of cheese. That’s 2 1/2 times more than what you need to make mozzarella. So, how does pule compare to other types of cheese? And why is it so expensive?

Even in the diverse world of cheese, pule is unique. There’s only one place in the world that makes it, and that’s on this farm in the Zasavica Special Nature Reserve. Slobodan Simić founded the reserve 24 years ago in Serbia. It’s one of just three areas in all of former Yugoslavia that protects a special endangered breed of Balkan donkey. Pule is made with 60% donkey milk and 40% goat milk, and it requires months and many donkeys to produce it.

Slobodan Simić: Everything was by accident, and nothing was by accident. Our main idea about donkeys was to save this species, because the number of donkeys in Serbia was less than 1,000. That’s when I decided to build the first farm for dairy donkeys. The focus was on the dairy donkeys. And when we reached 200 donkeys, we had a surplus of milk, I thought that we should also make cheese.

Narrator: There are only about 20 donkeys that produce milk on the farm at a time. And even then, each one won’t produce much. Each donkey is milked carefully by hand three times a day. If the farmers don’t empty all of the milk, the donkeys won’t continue making it.

Slobodan Simić: We’ve tried to milk them by machine, but that has turned out to be impossible. Because a donkey is not made like a cow, to give milk, only her baby can suck it. So when we tried to put on the milking machine, it would block the milk.

Narrator: Today, farmers care for 250 donkeys, but they can’t always take milk from all of them. Similar to cows, a female donkey will only produce milk once it’s had a baby. And each one carries a baby for a year and two weeks. Then farmers must wait another three months, once the baby has taken milk for itself, before they can begin gathering their own to make cheese. They need 6.6 gallons of milk in total to make just 1 kilogram of cheese. And a donkey produces under 1 gallon of milk per day. That’s far less than what comes from a cow, which can produce as much as 15 gallons of milk a day.

Each donkey will only produce milk for six months. Then you must wait another year to collect milk from that same donkey again. Pule is only sold on this farm and a few others the reserve partners with, another factor that ups the final value. The farm can produce between 50 and 70 kilograms of cheese a year, but Slobodan only ever sells about a third of that. And it’s not just because of pule’s staggering price. You couldn’t legally buy pule cheese in some parts of the world, even if you wanted to.

Slobodan Simić: This milk is only consumed unboiled, fresh, which is an additional problem for the placement of this milk to the EU market, because unpasteurized milk can’t be sold in the EU. But if you pasteurize it, you’ll lose all of those precious ingredients, and then you have something that’s not valuable.

Narrator: Technically, pule cheese can be produced with milk from any type of donkey, and therefore any farm that raises donkeys. But there’s one major roadblock. Just having donkey’s milk doesn’t mean you have all you need to make this cheese. Pule is made in a very specific way, using a recipe only Slobodan and one other person in the world knows. It’s because donkey milk contains less fat than the milk of other animals, which means it holds less of the protein casein that allows many other cheeses to coagulate on their own.

The recipe requires goat milk and a secret mix of additives and bacteria. This is what allows the milk to form curds, an essential stage of any cheesemaking process. Without this, it wouldn’t be possible to make pule at all.

Slobodan Simić: No one can make it. Not just at home, but well-known milk experts from many countries have tried to make it, and they have failed. That’s because of the additional bacteria and substances invented by our expert that succeeded in coagulating the milk, which is known to have little casein for coagulation. Many have tried, but no one managed to make it.

Narrator: The cheese is finally placed into 50-gram molds to age for a few days. Once removed from the molds, it’s set in another room to age for at least a month more. The final product is crumbly and soft with a rich flavor.

Slobodan Simić: Genuine, unique, and special.

Narrator: The cost of preserving the donkey species is another element to keep in mind when considering pule’s huge value. Slobodan must maintain the land, buy food for the donkeys, and hire workers to care for them. In a year, he spends about $100,000 just to keep the farm running. And unless producing pule becomes easier or someone else in the world discovers how to make it, nothing is likely to bring down the price of this incredibly rare Serbian cheese.

Slobodan Simić: In life, there are moments when you discover something and you feel that it is the time to dedicate yourself to that cause. That’s what I’ve done. I’ve never regretted this decision, and I’m very happy that I was able to build a reserve like this, along with my friends and companions.

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A pound of cinnamon quills can cost $27 – here’s why it’s one of the most expensive spices

  • Ceylon cinnamon is made from the dried inner bark of a tree native to Sri Lanka.
  • One pound of these quills can cost $27. That’s because it’s difficult and costly to produce.
  • Even some of the most experienced cinnamon peelers can only make a few pounds of quills a day.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Following is a transcription of the video.

Narrator: Ceylon cinnamon is native to just one region of the world, and producing it requires hours of delicate work. Even the most skilled workers can make only a few pounds of quills a day. One pound of cinnamon quills can cost $27, but not all spices labeled cinnamon are the Ceylon variety. Many in the Western market are actually cheaper types of cinnamon called cassia. So what makes Ceylon cinnamon so favorable? And why is it so expensive?

Ceylon cinnamon is named after the old British name for Sri Lanka, and it is often considered “real” cinnamon. It is made from the dried inner bark of a tree called Cinnamomum verum. Growing these trees is an investment. Farmers must wait four years after a tree is planted before they can begin harvesting. At harvest, workers break down the branches early in the morning, when the bark is still moist. Ruwanpura must continuously care for the trees throughout the year, otherwise the branches won’t be suitable for making cinnamon at all. The rigorous nature of this job has only just begun.

Now peelers must do the delicate and essential work of stripping the inner bark of each branch by hand. This is the most labor-intensive part of the process, and it’s not as easy as simply shaving the outside of the bark as you would the skin from a potato. To produce the most valuable cinnamon, the bark must be made extremely thin. The thinner the quills are, the more costly they will be. Ruwanpura has spent 40 years mastering this skill. Soon after the bark is removed, each piece dries under the sun and curls up within a few minutes. After drying, the small pieces are stuffed inside a straight piece of bark, forming one 42-inch quill. By the end of a long day, workers will have only produced about 3 pounds of quills. Those then need to dry for three to four days before they’re packed into bales and sent off to a separate facility. That’s where there’ll be graded and officially priced based on their width.

PDRomanis and Sons buys bales of cinnamon from various peelers. At its facility, quills are graded over 10 scales. The most valuable quills are classified as Alba. It takes a peeler four times longer to produce one kilogram of Alba than to produce the same quantity of lower grades. The leftover, smaller cuts are turned into ground cinnamon and make up the cheapest form. But even the most valuable quills are often confused with a more widely accessible and cheaper variety of cinnamon.

Cassia comes from another kind of cinnamon tree, called Cinnamomum cassia, and it doesn’t require as much time or effort to make. Cassia bark is hard and sturdy, so quills are made as one curled piece of bark without the fillings. Ceylon cinnamon, on the other hand, is tender and soft and needs those inner layers to prevent the quill from breaking. Cassia is very fragrant and brown, whereas real cinnamon is paler, with a milder flavor. Cassia also contains, on average, higher levels of coumarin, an organic compound that can cause liver damage if consumed in large amounts. This is why researchers say Ceylon cinnamon is ultimately the healthier option. But if you’re buying cinnamon in the US, it can be hard to tell the difference between them.

Part of the confusion between the two comes from the use of the label cinnamon. In the US, it is legal to label both Ceylon and cassia cinnamon as cinnamon, while in the UK and other countries, cassia must be labeled cassia and cannot be classified simply as cinnamon. Regardless of what it’s called in the US, consumers worldwide prefer the real thing. In 2018, Ceylon cinnamon accounted for more global revenue than any other variety. And even as demand is expected to grow through 2025, climate change already poses a serious threat to cinnamon production. In recent years, Sri Lanka has experienced droughts over several months. And these long periods of dry weather can kill cinnamon trees, which need marshy, wet soil to survive. There’s also a shortage of cinnamon peelers, another threat to production that’s likely to drive up prices. This industry relies on experienced peelers who can practice the difficult work of making these quills over many years.

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