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Mushroom Myths and Misconceptions: Separating Fact from Fiction
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Mushroom Myths and Misconceptions: Separating Fact from Fiction

Seraiah Alexander
Seraiah Alexander
December 21, 2023
13 min

In recent years, mushrooms have been making their move into mainstream medicine, media, and culinary practices as more people are becoming informed about their diversity, uses, and benefits. Despite the emerging “mushroom renaissance” that has taken the world by storm, many misconceptions still linger due to a long history of age-old myths and limited knowledge.

Although recent research has refuted many misconceptions surrounding fungi, a portion of the population remains wary of mushrooms and the toxic encounters they may face if they stray away from the traditional button or shiitake varieties. To shift this narrative, it’s crucial to foster a more open-minded and less fearful perspective while differentiating between what’s true and untrue.

Tracing the history of misunderstood mushrooms

Mushrooms have a mixed reputation – some people absolutely love them and see them as a delicacy, while others approach them with apprehension. This dichotomy is rather reasonable considering the diverse nature of mushrooms. Some taste good, some can heal illnesses, while others can cause sickness and even death. 

Humans and mushrooms have had an intricate relationship for thousands of years. Ancient civilizations have used them for culinary, medical, and spiritual practices. However, because of the unreliable nature of mushrooms and their identification, a variety of misconceptions and myths have made their way well into modern times. 

Many cultures have associated mushrooms with witchcraft, death, and decay. This, combined with their potential toxicity and stories of mushroom poisonings, has led to a pervasive sense of mistrust and fear, known as mycophobia. As a result, many people began to steer away from wild mushrooms and their potential uses.

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Despite the negative associations towards mushrooms, we’ve seen a significant shift in our understanding of these fungi due to advances in mycology. We now have more accurate methods of identifying mushrooms and a deeper understanding of their various species and their effects on the body. And while there’s still so much more learning to do, an increasing number of people are becoming fascinated with fungi instead of fearful.

Unfortunately, there are still many myths and misunderstandings lingering around mushrooms, perpetuated by folklore, media, and lack of education. To dispel these misbeliefs, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most common mushroom myths to separate fact from fiction.

Myth 1: You can get sick or die just by touching a toxic mushroom. 

Because of the extreme potency of some toxic mushrooms, where ingesting just a small amount could be fatal, many people believe that simply touching a poisonous mushroom can be harmful to their health. This widespread myth can be traced back to decades of folktales and cautionary tales often used to discourage children from meddling with or consuming wild mushrooms that could get them ill.

Though rooted in genuine concerns, these tales have had a lasting impact and persisted into adulthood for many. They’ve become deeply ingrained beliefs passed down from generation, instilling unneeded fear. 

Fortunately, one cannot get sick or die by touching a toxic mushroom. Our skin acts as a protective barrier, effectively preventing the absorption of harmful compounds from entering the bloodstream. The toxins found in some mushrooms, like the deadly amatoxins found in many Amanita species, must be ingested in order to have any adverse effects on an individual. 

That being said, it’s still important to practice good hygiene after handling any wild mushroom. Though the risk is minimal, there still is a small chance of poisoning if residual toxins or contaminants are left on the hands and subsequently ingested – either by eating food with unwashed hands or unintentionally putting fingers in the mouth.

Furthermore, in rare cases, some individuals may experience skin allergies or irritation from certain mushroom species. These species might not necessarily be toxic but may contain compounds that trigger reactions in those with a sensitive immune response. Just as people may be allergic to certain plants or food, some may have reactions to specific mushrooms. The reaction can range from mild itching and redness to severe cases of hives. 

Nevertheless, the next time you feel compelled to touch a wild mushroom, don’t fear. You’re generally safe handling them. So go out and enjoy working on your mushroom identification skills. Don’t worry about getting your hands dirty, so long as you wash them afterward!

Myth 2: Wild mushrooms are never safe to eat.

Many people still believe that mushrooms from grocery stores are the only safe option for consumption. And while there’s always a risk of accidentally encountering a toxic mushroom in the wild, the chances are still relatively low if proper identification and precautions are taken.

Foraging for wild mushrooms can be an incredibly fun and rewarding experience, providing individuals with the opportunity to try out various types of fungi that are not commonly found on the shelves of commercial markets. But how can one know if the mushrooms they pick are delicious treats or potentially dangerous duds? This is where education and experience play a major role.

Any aspiring forager should spend time getting to know more about how to identify choice edible mushrooms in their natural habitats. Some of the main things to look out for are the specific characteristics unique to a mushroom species, such as color, size, shape, and type of gills or pores found beneath the cap.

Additionally, one should know about the environment where the specified mushroom grows since different species have substrate preferences. Some mushrooms may exclusively grow near certain types of trees or under certain soil conditions. For instance, the highly coveted morel mushroom usually appears near hardwoods like elm, ash, apple, and aspen since the fungus has a mutualistic relationship with these tree species.

Another way to prevent inaccurately identifying a mushroom is through becoming familiar with any look-alikes of the species. Some mushrooms have obvious characteristics and little to no toxic look-alikes, while others look strikingly similar to very poisonous species. 

Comprehensive field guides for your local area can always come in use while you’re still learning the ropes of mushroom identification, but if books aren’t your thing, there are several mushroom identification apps that come in handy when all you have is your smartphone.

However, the best way to learn about mushroom identification is through an experienced forager or mycologist with hands-on experience determining which mushrooms are safe and unsafe for consumption. Many local mycological societies host mushroom forrays during peak seasons or offer workshops and classes led by experienced mushroom hunters.

As foragers say, “When in doubt, throw it out.” If you are not 100% certain that the mushroom you’ve picked is edible, please do not eat it! The potential of a tasty mushroom meal is never worth a trip to the hospital.

Myth 3: Cooking mushrooms removes all of their nutritional value.

The wide array of mushroom varieties opens up numerous possibilities for creating exciting and diverse recipes. Not only are mushrooms packed with flavor, but they’re incredibly versatile and packed with nutritious vitamins and essential compounds. However, there is a misconception that mushrooms lose much of their nutritional value once they’ve been cooked. 

Unfortunately, most mushrooms need to be cooked, especially if they were foraged from the wild. Most fresh mushrooms that you can find at a store are generally safe to consume raw, such as button mushrooms, oysters, and shiitake. Uncooked mushrooms can differ in flavor and texture and can be a great addition to salads, sandwiches, and more. However, there are several mushrooms that have toxins or compounds that must be cooked off in order to be considered edible.

Notably, mushrooms contain chitin, a complex carbohydrate made from glucose monomers. This same compound is found in the exoskeletons of insects and the shells of crustaceans. Many people have trouble digesting chitin in its raw form and can experience minor gastrointestinal distress as a result. By cooking mushrooms, the fibers in chitin break down, making it significantly easier to digest, which allows more beneficial nutrients to be absorbed in the stomach.

Cooking mushrooms can also increase the bioavailability of essential nutrients and compounds like ergosterol, which converts to vitamin D, or beta-glucans, which are high in antioxidants and can help support the immune system. Furthermore, since mushrooms are porous, they can absorb bacteria or other environmental contaminants that can lead to foodborne illnesses. Cooking mushrooms at medium to high heat (around 140°F to 165°F) for 2-4 minutes should make them safe for consumption.

Mushrooms can lose some of their nutrients through cooking, but this depends heavily on factors like cooking method and duration. Mushrooms contain water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C and B vitamins, that can be lost when they are boiled or simmered for long amounts of time (1).

If you’re making a soup, then the liquid in the soup will absorb all these vitamins, but if the mushrooms are drained, you might miss out on some of these water-soluble nutrients. Cooking mushrooms with different methods and for shorter durations can help keep some of these important nutrients in your meal. Plus, many minerals remain stable even after cooking, like selenium, potassium, and copper (2).

Myth 4: Mushrooms are plants.

Contrary to popular belief, mushrooms are not plants. Even though mushrooms grow from the ground and have similar characteristics to some plant life, they’re actually classified as fungi. One of the primary distinctions between plants and fungi is how the organisms obtain their food sources. Fungi are distinct from plants in several different ways, but one of their primary differences is how they obtain nutrients. 

Plants are classified as autotrophs, which are organisms that create their food using light, carbon dioxide (CO2), and water through the process of photosynthesis. In contrast, mushrooms are classified as heterotrophs, meaning they cannot chemically produce food on their own and instead obtain their nutrients from other organic substances.

Mushrooms feed on various forms of organic matter, such as plant and animal matter, like leaves, feces, and wood. They break down their food into simpler molecules using enzymes. This process, known as decomposition, is what makes fungi such a crucial player in maintaining ecosystem health. As mushrooms “eat” their food, they recycle nutrients and organic matter back into the soil.

Another major difference between plants and fungi is how they grow. Most plants grow through cell division throughout certain areas of their structure, primarily the roots and the tips of stems. In contrast, mushrooms are only a small portion of a much larger fungal organism that mainly consists of an underground thread-like structure called mycelium. The mycelium spreads through the soil as it seeks out nutrients and creates a mushroom as its reproductive structure when under the right conditions. 

These examples are only a few of the key differences between plants and mushrooms, yet they highlight the importance of acknowledging such distinctions. By understanding their proper scientific classifications, we can truly appreciate the complexities of their ecological functions and interactions.

Myth 5: All fungi create mushrooms.

While it is true that all mushrooms are classified as fungi, not all fungi produce mushrooms. Fungi make up a vast array of organisms, and they exhibit various life cycles and reproductive strategies. Although mushrooms are one of the most obvious and well-known forms of fungal reproduction, they’re only a small fraction of the diverse fungal world. There are an estimated 1.5 to 5 million species of fungi in the world, and of those species, only around 20,000 of them produce mushrooms (3).

Molds, for instance, can be found in the air, in the soil, on food, and on various other surfaces. Like mushrooms, molds also grow as several branching filaments called hyphae that make up the mycelium network. They also produce spores, but they do not require a fruiting body to do so. Their spores are created on specialized structures of the hyphae that vary by mold species. 

Yeasts are another form of fungus that reproduces through a process called budding. The unicellular nature of a yeast organism divides into two, therefore creating a new individual. This process happens rather quickly, allowing yeast populations to grow rapidly.

Beyond these examples, there are many forms of fungi that do not require mushrooms to reproduce. The fungal kingdom is incredibly diverse, and while mushrooms are a great visual example of fungi, there’s so much more to the fungi world than meets the eye.

Myth 6:  Silver, garlic, onions, and potatoes can help indicate a mushroom’s toxicity.

There is an old wives tale amongst the foraging community that silver or certain food items can help identify poisonous mushrooms. Specifically, it claims that placing a silver spoon in a pot with mushrooms will cause tarnishing if the mushroom is toxic due to a reaction with the mushroom’s compounds. Likewise, the myth suggests that boiling garlic, onions, or potatoes with toxic mushrooms will result in a blackening of these food items.

 Although no one knows the origins of such claims, they are definitely not a reliable means for identifying poisonous mushrooms. The tarnishing of the silver is actually a chemical reaction with sulfur, which could originate from the mushrooms themselves or from sulfur compounds present in the environment. Similarly, the color changing that supposedly occurs with certain vegetables is also untrue and has no basis in scientific fact.

Relying on this method to determine a mushroom’s edibility is not only scientifically inaccurate but also potentially dangerous. Poisonous mushrooms contain a variety of toxic compounds that differ from species to species. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to establish whether these compounds are present, and attempting to use quick-fix hacks like these could lead to misidentification and deadly consequences. This myth greatly oversimplifies the complex nature of mushroom identification.

Determining the edibility of a mushroom should be based on accurate identification and not misleading assumptions. Even experienced foragers and mycologists depend on meticulous examination before deciding the safety of unknown mushrooms.

Because there are thousands of species of mushrooms, and some with close look-alikes, proper identification techniques are a must. The margin of error is slim, and the consequences can be severe, which is why foragers, especially beginners, should avoid consuming wild mushrooms without a positive identification from an experienced expert. 

Myth 7: All mushroom supplements contain mushrooms.

Functional mushroom supplements have become increasingly popular due to their potential health benefits, especially when taken on a consistent schedule. However, not all mushroom supplements are created equal.

Some mushroom supplements out there may not include pure mushroom extracts from the fruiting body of the fungi, while some may not include any at all. Instead, these supplements are made from mycelium, despite misleading claims on their labels that suggest otherwise. 

Although mycelium is a vital portion of a fungi’s anatomy, it typically does not contain the same concentrations of bioactive compounds and nutrients that are found in the fruiting body, like beta-glucans. Many supplement companies cut corners and use mycelium instead of mushrooms since mycelium grows significantly faster and is less expensive to produce.

Mycelium requires a substrate to grow on, such as corn or rye, which is difficult to separate from the mycelium. As a result, the myceliated substrate is often ground up and sold as a mushroom supplement despite its high content of fillers.

When looking for a high-quality mushroom supplement, it is important to carefully read the label to ensure that the product contains actual fruiting body extracts from the mushroom. One should also seek out reputable brands that are transparent about where they source their mushrooms. A trustworthy source will typically show proof of third-party testing results to verify the content of their supplements. 

Additionally, it’s important to note the extraction method used by the manufacturer, as it can significantly impact the presence and potency of certain active compounds in the supplement. Some compounds, like beta-glucans and polysaccharides, are water soluble and need to be extracted through the hot water method, whereas other compounds, like triterpenes, must be extracted using alcohol or ethanol.

Many high-quality supplement brands will utilize the dual extraction process, combining both the hot water and alcohol extraction methods. This process ensures that the product has a broad spectrum of active compounds. 

So, while many brands market themselves as “mushroom supplements,” it’s always best to verify whether or not the product actually contains real mushroom extracts so that you can reap all of the medicinal benefits of functional mushrooms.

Myth #8: Magic mushrooms can make you go insane 

Magic mushrooms that contain the psychedelic compound psilocybin have been the target of several myths surrounding their adverse effects on mental health. 

These myths have been fueled by misinformation and stigmatization, which was exasperated during the “war on drugs” era when all psychedelics were deemed federally illegal and classified as Schedule I substances. As part of the broader campaign against drug use, psilocybin mushrooms were heavily demonized, and many exaggerated claims were made about their effects on the mind. This narrative led many to believe that magic mushrooms could lead to insanity or other permanent mental health issues.

In reality, the risks associated with responsible psychedelic mushroom use are entirely different than the sensationalized declarations of the past. Since then, several studies have determined a more accurate understanding of psilocybin’s effect on the mind. This research has found that psilocybin can actually improve certain mental health conditions, especially if administered in a controlled setting, like in clinical trials.

Recent studies have found that psilocybin can help treat conditions such as treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more. The psychedelic compound has even been designated as a breakthrough treatment by the FDA for its potential to treat depression.

This designation means that there is preliminary clinical evidence that indicates that the compound may be a more effective treatment than existing therapies. As a result, the process of studying and reviewing psilocybin has been accelerated. If further research shows conclusive results, psilocybin may become an FDA-approved treatment.

Nonetheless, psilocybin is still being studied for its therapeutic use, and there still are exceedingly rare instances where the compound can cause adverse effects. Individuals who have pre-existing psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can be at a higher risk of experiencing psychosis-like symptoms, especially under very high doses.

The duration of psychosis is generally short-lived (around a few hours to a few days); however, this symptom is incredibly uncommon. Another risk of taking psilocybin is the potential to develop a rare disorder called Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD), which can cause reoccurring flashbacks to psychedelic experiences. These disturbances can come and go and may last from months to years.

Despite these risks, which are largely preventable through controlled dosages and proper setting, most evidence suggests that psilocybin is relatively safe. As facilitated psilocybin centers become more common, more people can have the option to take the substance in a better environment with trained professionals to substantially reduce the risk of any adverse effects. 

As our society moves past outdated misconceptions, we can move closer to determining the full therapeutic potential of psilocybin, offering relief to those who have not had luck with traditional treatment options.

The importance of education and awareness

Although there is still a lot of mushroom misinformation floating about, education and awareness are key to dispelling these myths. As more people learn about the exciting potential of fungi and move past false narratives, the collective understanding and appreciation of mushrooms can grow. This shift in perception helps reduce fears and stigmatization, which makes room for the advancement of scientific research and medical applications. 

Yes, some mushrooms can have scary consequences, but many are delicious, healing, and downright fascinating. By balancing caution with open-mindedness, we can fully value the significance of mushrooms and their various applications. As we peel away the layers of myth, there’s a world ripe with possibilities just waiting to be explored.

References

  1. Reid, Tsungai, Merjury Munyanyi, and Takafira Mduluza. 2016. “Effect of Cooking and Preservation on Nutritional and Phytochemical Composition of the Mushroom Amanita Zambiana.” Food Science & Nutrition 5 (3): 538–44. https://doi.org/10.1002/fsn3.428.
  2. Agarwal, Sanjiv, and Victor L. Fulgoni, III. 2021. “Nutritional Impact of Adding a Serving of Mushrooms to USDA Food Patterns – a Dietary Modeling Analysis.” Food & Nutrition Research 65 (February). https://doi.org/10.29219/fnr.v65.5618.
  3. Blackwell, Meredith. 2011. “The Fungi: 1, 2, 3 … 5.1 Million Species?” American Journal of Botany 98 (3): 426–38. https://doi.org/10.3732/ajb.1000298.

Fact Checked: Shannon Ratliff


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Seraiah Alexander

Seraiah Alexander

Content Editor

Table Of Contents

1
Tracing the history of misunderstood mushrooms
2
Myth 1: You can get sick or die just by touching a toxic mushroom. 
3
Myth 2: Wild mushrooms are never safe to eat.
4
Myth 3: Cooking mushrooms removes all of their nutritional value.
5
Myth 4: Mushrooms are plants.
6
Myth 5: All fungi create mushrooms.
7
Myth 6:  Silver, garlic, onions, and potatoes can help indicate a mushroom’s toxicity.
8
Myth 7: All mushroom supplements contain mushrooms.
9
Myth #8: Magic mushrooms can make you go insane 
10
The importance of education and awareness
11
References

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