Although mushrooms are considered a vegetable by most people, they’re not actually vegetables or plants; they’re fungi.
The idea of eating a fungus can turn some people off, but for those who can get beyond that, mushrooms provide a versatile treasure of dietary options in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny Enoki to the giant King Oyster mushrooms.
In addition to adding mushrooms to stir-fries, consumers can now buy Quorn products in their freezer aisle. Quorn is a fungi-based “mycoprotein” meat substitute that’s formed into delicious, nutritious roasts and burgers.
However, the marvels of mushrooms don’t stop at the edge of our plates.
Recent scientific advances in mycology — the study of fungi — are studying the use of antarctic fungi extracts to treat leukemia. Fungi extracts stimulate the immune system to fight cancer cells in the body, without all the negative side effects of chemotherapy.
“Fungi are intricately linked to both plants and animals in essentially every terrestrial ecosystem on our planet,” said Dr. Paul Ustach, professor of biology at Delta College. “Their importance can’t be understated. Since fungi are so understudied, I would not be surprised if we find even more medicines in the future.”
Paul Stamets, a mycologist and author, wrote a book detailing the medical uses of fungi in treating tuberculosis and cancer.
Fungi have been used to kill fatal viruses in honeybees and dramatically extend the bee’s lives. Scientists are using fungi’s natural ability to decompose wood in applications to detoxify toxic wastes and pollutants.
“The world is not covered in leaves, dead branches, dead animals, and poop because of fungi, along with bacteria, breaking them down in the soil,” said Ustach.
However, the critical importance of fungi goes beyond any dramatic medicinal cures they may provide in the future.
“Fungi are already a vital component of the natural world; in fact, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist without fungi,” said Debbie Viess, co-founder of Bay Area Mycological Society. “Fungi evolved right along with the very first green plants and are intimately tied to all plants everywhere, but mostly we ignore their important role in the environment.”
Viess agrees we should appreciate fungi just for existing on our planet, separate from any dramatic, planet-saving claims made to sell books.
“I’m more interested in the practical applications for fungi, and even more interested in what they are actually doing out there on their own for their own reasons, rather than what we can get them to do for ours,” said Viess. “Our world is going through profound changes and we can’t count on mushrooms, manipulated by we flawed humans, to fix all of the problems. Earth will strike her own balance, with or without us…Train your own eyes to see the fungi all around us, and you might just be amazed, too.”