Edible Mushroom Guide: 4 Myths About Mushroom Safety
What do you think of when you hear the word “mushroom”?
Maybe it’s an image of cute little button mushrooms destined to be seen in soups or salads. Or you might envision a psychedelic trip of Alice-in-Wonderland proportions.
The story is pretty much the same everywhere: Most people think the word “mushroom” refers to a few culinary mushrooms or to hallucinogenic mushrooms. And the misinformation about mushrooms doesn’t stop there.
It’s very common to hear “Aren’t mushrooms poisonous?” or “All mushrooms have high toxicity levels.”
The truth is, there are some poisonous mushrooms out there. But that’s not really a big surprise when you consider that there are 1.5 million types of fungi in the world.
It’s also truth that there are many benefits of certain mushrooms, from immune system support to gut health and stress management. (Beyond good ol’ nutrition of course.)
If you’re still skeptical, I want share how I came to devote my life being a PR agent to the world of mushrooms — and then clarify four myths about mushrooms. I hope you’ll walk away from this article feeling as excited about mushrooms as I do every day.
My Introduction to Mushrooms
I’m a 13th generation farmer. I grew up in Europe — Finland, specifically — and spent my youth on the family farm, living off the land. I’ve been fascinated by farm-to-table foods and resources ever since.
And while everything of the land is of interest, in particular, one of my favorite jobs was foraging with my mother. It was the activity she enjoyed most. And while her preference was searching for wild berries, my obsessions quickly became hunting down the best wild mushrooms among the trees.
Even today, when I’m asked to tell the Four Sigmatic story, my first thoughts go back to my family’s farm and those wild mushrooms. Initially, I searched for those that tasted best. At the time, I didn’t understand the full range of health benefits offered by a wide variety of edible mushrooms.
In college my love of mushrooms became something greater than I ever imagined. I began researching the world of mycology, and was fascinated when I learned about how edible mushrooms had been used for thousands of years and that science — and even pharma companies — supported the claims.
That was just the start. Once I became educated, I started to apply mushrooms to my own life. The first breakthrough was when I was a competitive runner in my 20s. I began using a mushroom called cordyceps.
Research suggests that cordyceps can increase your energy while also reducing fatigue, which supports athletic performance.
At the time, it wasn’t as easy to source, but I found a reputable source and started pouring capsules of cordyceps powder into my pre-workout smoothies. I couldn’t have asked for better results. On every run — within about 15 minutes — I experienced a surge in energy, combined with mental clarity.
At that point, I knew I needed to make mushrooms more available. After all, cordyceps is just one of 1.5 million varieties of fungi. That’s why I decide to become a “fun-guy.” (My ridiculous way of saying I’m invested in the fungi kingdom as a solution to human health and wellness.)
My new obsession led me to research different varieties of mushrooms, and I uncovered a relationship between human wellness and fungi with a centuries-long history.
My firm belief is that everyone deserves to reap the incredible benefits that come from incorporating mushrooms into a daily wellness regimen inspired my decision to found Four Sigmatic in 2012. Our dream was to popularize the consumption of functional mushrooms by making them accessible to everyone.
We made it our mission to offer functional mushrooms to you in a way that would merely be upgrading or replacing existing habits with healthier options. We started with mushroom coffee because it allowed us to introduce mushrooms to you in a simple, seamless, and delicious way.
Today, we’re full-on living our dream of bringing mushrooms to the masses — masses who are, incidentally, becoming increasingly hungry for alternative means to achieve optimal health and wellness.
But our work isn’t over. Even though more and more people are coming alive to the functional benefits of mushrooms, fungi still face an uphill climb in the court of public opinion. As you’ll see in the next section, concerns and misconceptions about mushrooms abound. So it’s high time we set the record straight.
The 4 Biggest Mushroom Myths
It might sound silly, but mycophobia (the fear, distrust, or abhorrence of mushrooms) is a real thing.
In fact, entire cultures can demonstrate either mycophobic (mushroom-fearing) or mycophillic (mushroom-loving) attitudes[*].
The British are notoriously mycophobic, while cultures in Europe, Asia, and Africa are more likely to be mycophillic.
Here’s the key: If mycophobic attitudes tend to be learned through cultural influence, then that means they can also be unlearned. If you are among the many people who suffer from a learned aversion to mushrooms, the following information should help to put your mind at ease.
Myth #1: All mushrooms are poisonous.
The facts: Saying that all mushrooms are poisonous is like saying all people are evil. Are there a few bad seeds in this world? Of course. Just as there are a few dangerous mushrooms.
But given that there are more than 1.5 million types of fungi, it would be foolish to throw them all out with the (presumed poisonous) bathwater. In fact, research suggests only approximately 60 species out of the whole lot of known mushrooms are actually poisonous[*].
This isn’t to say you don’t need to watch out. Some of these poisonous mushrooms are look-alikes to popular wild mushrooms. These include the very infamous Destroying Angel and Death Angel mushrooms that look very very similar to Amanita Muscaria. And false morels that aren’t to be confused with morchella (true morel mushrooms). And Jack-O’-Lantern mushrooms are sneakily close to delicious chanterelles (cantharellus). A mushroom field guide is your #1 go-to to correctly identify wild mushrooms and spot the look-alikes.
On the flip side, adaptogens and functional mushrooms may offer more than 130 medicinal functions in the human body[*]. Edible mushrooms have essential vitamins and nutrients and have been shown to support your immune system, stress levels, gut health, and skin.
The benefits of fungi are so powerful that roughly 40 percent of all pharmaceuticals contain fungi in some form — including the world-changing and life-saving penicillin.
Myth #2: Eating raw mushrooms is dangerous.
The facts: I love many raw foods. Eating raw edible mushrooms is not dangerous, but it might not give you all the nutrition you want.
For common mushrooms like shiitake, portobello, or oyster (pleurotus ostreatus) mushrooms, cooking the mushrooms helps to make some of the nutrients more available to your body. It also helps enhance the taste, which is always a good thing!
Eating functional mushrooms in raw form will not hurt you, but it also won’t take advantage of all of the benefits. If you want to obtain the maximum benefits from mushrooms, it’s important to keep a few things in mind:
- Fruiting bodies have higher concentrations of active compounds than mycelium. By “fruiting bodies,” I mean the part of the fungi that grows above ground (what we typically call the “mushroom,” though it is in fact only a part of the whole). These fruiting bodies contain concentrated healthful compounds. The mycelium, or root system, of mushrooms is much less concentrated.
- Mushrooms need to be properly extracted to take advantage of their benefits. The best way to extract is to use a two-step process. This two-step process entails using alcohol extraction to release fat-soluble compounds (including good-for-you terpenoids), and then using a hot-water extraction in order to release water-soluble compounds (such as healthful polysaccharides). This means that if you’re attempting to use mushrooms for their functional benefits, raw mushrooms are a big no-no.
As mushrooms grow in popularity, many companies are promoting the potential health benefits of mushrooms on the packaging of products that have not been extracted, which means those benefits are less available to the body. It’s a good idea to steer clear of any product that hasn’t been extracted in both alcohol and water if you want to get your money’s worth.
It’s also smart to avoid products that mention they are both raw and extracted as well as products that say they contain the fruiting body, spores, and mycelium all together (unless they explicitly stipulate the exact amounts of each part). These “blends” are often a clever way to mask lower-quality ingredients.
Myth #3: There’s not enough science to corroborate mushroom safety.
The facts: This one is just patently false. In the last decade, there have been more than 100,000 studies on medicinal mushrooms in Asia alone.
In recent years, as Western researchers catch on to the potential wellness benefits of mushrooms, there’s been a huge surge in mushroom-related studies in the United States and, overall, this research has been overwhelmingly positive. If you’re interested, you can find more of this research on the benefits of mushrooms here.
Myth #4: Mushrooms have high toxicity levels.
The facts: This statement isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s misguided about the functional mushrooms that you’ll find in our products. Some fungi do contain toxic compounds — but this isn’t the case for functional mushrooms.
The reason mushrooms have gotten a bad rap when it comes to concerns about toxicity is because of a little thing called mycotoxins, or organic substances that are present in mushrooms and poisonous to humans.
Once again, it’s important to note that mycotoxins aren’t present in all mushrooms. Instead, these undesirable fungi include black mold (the stuff of home renovation horror stories) and aflatoxins, another genus of molds that is sometimes found on foods such as cacao, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
You don’t need to worry about the culinary mushrooms you find at the grocery stores. And it’s important to make sure any functional mushroom extracts, powders, or tinctures are tested for mycotoxins. Every batch of Four Sigmatic products is tested for mycotoxins.
If You’re a New Mushroom Hunter, Start Here
Before you hit the trails to find some wild edible mushrooms, be sure to read my 7 tips for foraging mushrooms in North America.
A free, reliable way to identify North American mushrooms is to google “USDA Forest Service” plus your region. They have created guides for regions across the U.S. (Like this one for forests in Eastern North America). Audubon Societies are also great resources for new mushroom hunters. These resources can help you avoid poisonous mushrooms, and distinguish between Hen of the Woods, and Chicken of the Wood.
Join Our Mushroom Club
It’s fair to say that these presumptions about mushrooms have done us all a disservice, because they’ve resulted in the full potential of mushrooms being largely overlooked in Western culture.
Fortunately, the recent rise of mushroom popularity in both the culinary and health-and-wellness spheres is helping functional mushrooms’ cause. The more people who take the time to address their misconceptions about mushrooms, the more we can all enjoy the benefits of these potent members of the fungi kingdom.
Join our community of like-minded mushroom lovers and mushroom hunters in our ‘Shroom Club on Facebook today to swap foraging stories and recipes.