September is National Mushroom Month

There are roughly 11,000 named species of mushrooms in North America; some are edible, some are psychedelic, and some are notoriously poisonous.  

Many edible mushrooms have an array of health benefits.  The medicinal compounds in mushrooms are known as adaptogens, which help your body maintain homeostasis and support a healthy response to stress.  Medicinal mushrooms such as Turkey Tail, Chaga, Maitake, and Lion’s Mane grow in abundance in New York State.  

In certain parts of the world, particularly China and Japan, mushrooms are used therapeutically.  For example, some mushrooms are valued as a strengthener and tonifier for the immune system.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, certain mushrooms are recognized for their bioactivity, including detoxifying and cooling the liver and lungs as well as immunomodulation.  

The Chinese ling zhi (Ganoderma lucidum:  “reishi” in Japan), the Japanese shiitake (Lentinus edodes), maitake (Grifola frondose) and Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) are the mushrooms used most often in the treatment of cancer and other serious immune degenerations.  These traditional applications of mushrooms are now being scrutinized by researchers for their anti-tumor potential.

Mushrooms are classified as Fungi but grouped with vegetables by nutritionists.  Mushrooms are packed with nutrients (including antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds), low in calories, and delicious!  Mushrooms are one of the few foods that are a source of vitamin D; some mushrooms are sold with enhanced vitamin D through exposure to ultraviolet light during production.  

For medicinal use, mushrooms can be eaten or made into a tincture or tea.  Mushroom tinctures are concentrated liquid extracts of edible mushrooms.  Mushroom teas are enjoyed by many people as a tasty beverage or as a buzz-free, crash-free coffee alternative or enhancement.  

When it comes to eating mushrooms, raw mushrooms are hard to digest and thus mushrooms are not best eaten raw.  Some people will experience gastric distress as a result of eating uncooked mushrooms.  Cooking mushrooms enhances both digestibility and nutrient availability.  

Here are some ways to incorporate mushrooms into your diet:

  • Mushrooms can be enjoyed as a part of omelets, soups, stews, stir-fries, and sauces.  
  • You can make a mushroom your main entrée with a portobello mushroom burger dressed up with pesto or chipotle mayo!  
  • Edible mushrooms can be enjoyed as teas, such as Chaga Chai with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and a touch of maple syrup.  

White mushrooms account for ninety percent of the mushrooms consumed in the U.S.  Here are some other mushroom varieties to look for in your local food market, beyond the common white, button mushroom:

  • Hen of the Woods, also known as Maitake
  • Oyster
  • Shiitake
  • Cremini
  • Portobello

When shopping, look for mushrooms that are smooth, firm, and dry.  Sliced mushrooms won’t hold up as long as whole mushrooms in your fridge.  Yet sliced mushrooms are a time saver!  So, if you buy sliced mushrooms, just make sure you use them within a day or two.  Tip:  Buying mushrooms in bulk not only prevents wasteful packaging, but also allows you to pick the specific sizes you need.  

Once you bring mushrooms home, they need to breathe!  Mushrooms are best stored in a brown paper bag.  The worst way to store mushrooms is in a sealed plastic bag.  Use mushrooms within five days.  Mushrooms also can be frozen if you cook them first.  

If you are seeking medicinal benefits from edible mushroom products such as mushroom teas, tinctures, and powders, you should note how the mushroom product was sourced and how it was extracted.  For example,

  • Mushrooms have a strong capacity to absorb toxic trace elements  from soils such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic and uranium.  
  • Many of the beneficial compounds in wild foraged mushrooms depend on the nutrients found in the growing medium (e.g., log, tree); commercial mushrooms are grown in manure, wood chips, or saw dust.  
  • A well-made mushroom tincture captures both the water soluble and ethanol soluble compounds.  
  • Cheap mushroom extract powders are often cut with fillers such as cocoa and flours.  
  • Most mushroom extract powders capture only water-soluble compounds.  

Please enjoy mushrooms and mushroom supplements safely!  Think twice before you decide to forage for wild mushrooms, as some local varieties are poisonous.  Cornell mycologist Professor Kathie Hodge volunteers for our local poison control centers and frequently receives urgent calls on behalf of sick people and dogs.  The number of emergency calls Kathie receives has risen drastically in the last few years.  Make sure you know how to identify any mushroom growing in the wild before eating them.  In addition, determining whether a mushroom supplement is safe for personal use is best determined by a professional.

If you are interested in learning more about mushrooms, here are a few Cornell resources:

There are a few specialty businesses in New York that provide mushroom products and tours. You can find them through a Google search.

Here are two notable mushroom experts on Cornell’s campus:

  • Kathie Hodge, Professor of Plant Science and mycologist.  She teaches the very popular course, PLSCI 2010 Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds.  She is also the director of the Cornell Fungal Herbarium, with 400,000 preserved specimens of fungus serving as a lending library for researchers around the world.   Many thanks to Kathie for meeting with me for a mushroom chat and for providing helpful feedback on this article!  
  • Steve Gabriel, Extension Support Specialist and mycologist.  He specializes in woodland mushrooms and small farms.  Check out his work here.