Mycophobia: is it doing us any good?

Our society has a fear of fungi, there is no doubting that. We've been told they can kill us if we ingest the wrong species (which is true). So, we avoid culinary interaction with all wild species because some are poisonous. How is this different from plants, or wild animals, or people (aren't some of those dangerous as well)? How is this different from farmed foods (people die every year from eating cultivated produce). Recognize that over 300,000 people are hospitalized each year in the US eating "safe food". Knowing this, are you going to avoid store-purchased food? Probably not. We all know some car accident horror story. Does that mean you will avoid riding in cars? It’s time to be rationale about fears and realize this country's mycophobia has gotten a little out of control. These species have numerous benefits to our health (see below) and contribute to our self-reliance. Understand that some species of mushrooms are very easily identified and don't have close look-alikes. It simply takes a little time to learn the necessary skills to recognize them.

Mushrooms, in general, do contain some important nutrients, such as several B-complex vitamins and minerals (potassium, magnesium, calcium, and other trace minerals).  They are rich in ergosterol (i.e., pro-vitamin D2), which is converted to the active form of vitamin D2 if exposed to sunlight (e.g., sun drying for later use).  You can even take dried mushrooms from the store and expose them to sunlight to increase their vitamin D concentration many-fold.  Mushrooms also contain important functional aspects of nutrition, such as anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anticancer compounds.  But perhaps the most important reason to consume them is the immune modulating compounds they possess.  Fungi contain a special group of carbohydrates, complex polysaccharides called glucans, which are known to beneficially activate the immune system. Glucans are known to stimulate Natural Killer Cells to destroy malignant cells, increase the scavenging activity of macrophages, induce maturation of T-Cells to enhance cellular immunity, stimulate B-Cells to produce antibodies to tumor antigens, increase release of Tumor Necrosis Factor alpha to induce programmed cell death, up-regulate production of Interferon alpha from white blood cells to improve viral resistance in the body, increase the concentration of some Interleukins that are responsible for triggering the maturation of other immune cells and, well, you get the point.  Mushrooms improve the functioning of our immune system in a manner that protects us from bacteria, viruses, and cancer.  It is important to note that to get the full effects of the glucans in fungi, they must be cooked to liberate these compounds from indigestible cell wall material.  Without cooking, these polysaccharides are not bioavailable and a major reason for the consumption of fungi is not realized in the diet.

Instead of fearing all fungi, learn the distinctive ones by spending time with a skilled mycologist (i.e., one who studies fungi).  Bring these special organisms into your diet. Think of how cool it will be to gather and prepare these with your children (like gathering wild berries or fiddleheads). They will remember those meals, rather than just gulping down their food and returning to their indoor games. Fungi (and other wild foods) provide us with a means to armor our body against infection and cancer.  Avoiding these foods due to inexperience and/or hearsay simply means you are missing out on an important aspect of wild nutrition.  Though store-purchased ones are valuable, the variation in types, amounts, and ratios of glucans and other mycochemicals in wild species is known to provide a broader-based immune response.  Don't fear the wild—embrace it.