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Mushrooms are part of fungus family. There are thousands of edible varieties, many were eaten by ancient cultures all over the world. Mushrooms are high in fiber and contain many nutrients. They can give substance and a meaty texture to many meals.

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What it is

A mushroom is the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground on soil or on its food source. The standard for the name "mushroom" is the cultivated white button mushroom; hence the word mushroom is most often applied to fungi that have a stem, a cap and gills on the underside of the cap just as do store-bought white mushrooms. However, "mushroom" can also refer to a wide variety of gilled fungi, with or without stems

An edible mushroom is a mushroom that can potentially be safely eaten, including thousands of types of mushrooms that are regularly harvested. Some species that cannot be easily cultivated, such as the truffle or matsutake, are highly prized. On the other hand, some edible mushrooms may have an extremely bad taste, such as the Bitter bolete mushroom.

Before assuming that any wild mushroom is edible, check safety rules and be sure of its identification. There is no "test" for edibility other than identifying the species. Even mushrooms that are edible for most people can cause "allergic" reactions in some individuals.

Ancient Romans and Greeks ate mushrooms, particularly the wealthier classes

The pharaohs of Egypt enjoyed mushrooms so much that they decreed mushrooms could only be eaten by royalty and that no commoner could even touch them, thus giving the royal family the entire available supply. In some parts of Eurasia, especially in Russia and Nordic countries, mushrooms are an important part of the diet. Several mushrooms are especially tasty and many are rich in nutrients. Mushrooms are also easily preserved, and historically have provided additional nutrition over winter.

Many prehistoric and a few modern cultures around the world used psychedelic mushrooms for ritualistic purposes

Types of cultivated edible mushrooms

• Common button mushroom or champignon (Agaricus bisporus). This species also includes the portobello and crimini mushrooms.
• Shiitake, oak mushroom. (Lentinus edodes) The Shiitake is largely produced in Japan, China and South Korea. Shiitake accounts for 10% of world production of cultivated mushrooms. Common in Japan, China, Australia and North America.
• Meadow mushroom (Agaricus campestris)
• Tree ear fungus (Auricularia polytricha or Auricularia auricula-judae), two closely related species of jelly fungi that are commonly used in Chinese cuisine.
• Enokitake or Winter mushroom (Flammulina velutipes)
• Shimeji or Beech mushroom (Hypsizygus), it is a common variety of mushroom available in most markets in Japan.
• Oyster mushroom and king trumpet mushroom (Pleurotus). Pleurotus mushrooms are the second most important mushrooms in production in the world, 25% of total world production of cultivated mushrooms. Pleurotus mushrooms are worldwide, China is the major producer. Several species can be grown on carbonaceous matter such as straw or newspaper. In the wild they are usually found growing on wood.
• Rhizopus oligosporus - the fungal starter culture used in the production of tempeh. In tempeh the mycelia of R. oligosporus are consumed.
• Sparassis crispa - recent developments have led to this being cultivated in California.
• Snow fungus (Tremella fuciformis), another type of jelly fungus that is commonly used in Chinese cuisine.
• Tuber species, (the truffle), Truffles belong to the ascomycete grouping of fungi. The truffle fruitbodies develop underground in mycorrhizal association with certain trees e.g. oak, poplar, beech, and hazel. Being difficult to find, trained pigs or dogs are often used to sniff them out for easy harvesting.
- Tuber aestivum (Summer or St. Jean truffle)
- Tuber magnatum (Piemont white truffle)
- Tuber melanosporum (Perigord truffle)
- T.melanosporum x T.magnatum (Khanaqa truffle)
- Terfezia sp. (Desert truffle)
• Corn smut (Ustilago maydis), a fungal pathogen of the maize plants. Also called the Mexican truffle, although not a true truffle.
• Paddy straw mushroom. Volvariella volvacea (Volvariella volvacea) these mushrooms account for 16% of total production of cultivated mushrooms in the world.

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What is in it

Many species are high in fiber and provide vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, cobalamin and ascorbic acid. Though not normally a significant source of vitamin D, some mushrooms can become significant sources after exposure to ultraviolet light, though this also darkens their skin. Mushrooms are also a source of some minerals, including iron, selenium, potassium and phosphorous.

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What it is good for

Currently, many species of mushrooms and fungi used in folk medicine for thousands of years are under intense study by ethnobotanists and medical researchers. Maitake, shiitake, chaga, and reishi are prominent among those being researched for their potential anti-cancer, anti-viral, or immunity-enhancing properties. 

Psilocybin, originally an extract of certain psychedelic mushrooms, is being studied for its ability to help people suffering from mental disease, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Minute amounts have been reported to stop cluster and migraine headaches.

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When you get it

Fresh and dried mushrooms are available throughout the year.

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Which to select

Why Organic
Choose organically grown vegetables. To eat organic means to live cleanly, free of pesticides and toxins. It is a conscious choice. One made in order to survive right along with the planet that sustains us. Organically grown foods do not over-run the landfills with toxic waste from their farming or subject your body to unhealthy toxins. For your health and for the planet, choose to eat organic foods. To understand more about why organic is better please read our “Why Organic?” special feature.

The vegetable
Select mushrooms that are firm and plump. Avoid ones with wrinkled skin or wet slimy spots.

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Where to store

Keep mushrooms in the refrigerator either placed in a paper bag or covered with a damp cloth. These methods will help them to preserve their moisture without becoming soggy. Do not store then in plastic bags or plastic, as they will become slimy.

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How to use

Wash mushrooms well in cold water to remove any dirt or grit that is often on the stalk and head of the mushroom. Cut the base of the mushroom to remove any excess dirt from the root.

Mushrooms are used extensively in European and Asian cooking, they are great in vegetarian meals to add a meaty texture.

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How much you need

To reach your health goals and become healthy the most important step is to eat a well balanced diet of food from across all the food groups. 

For an average person 
Servings per food group:
• Whole Grains (Carbohydrates):  6 – 8 
• Meat and beans (Protein):  1 – 2 
• High quality fats: 1
• Dairy:     2 – 3
• Fruit: 2
• Vegetables: 5
• Water: 6

This list is of recommended daily amount of each food group for an average person 19 to 50 years old with a low level of exercise (30minutes of less a day). If you are older you may need a little less, if you are younger, a little more and if you are very active even more food should be eaten. For more information on serving sizes see our special feature on Sizing Up A Serve.

It is important to ensure that the foods that you eat are of a high quality. The highest quality product is one that is fresh, whole and organic.

Fresh – over time the quality of nutrients degrades with their potency dying off.

Whole – many foods, particularly vegetarian foods carry a lot of their nutrients in their outer skins. So leave bran, germs and skins on the food where possible; always with grains and whenever the fruit of vegetable permits.

Organic – ensure you have the cleanest food by using only foods that are grown without pesticides, or other chemicals, in a natural way as people have in all bar the last 80 years of history. Chemical burdened foods are a modern invention designed to increase output with little regard to the health of the end user.

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Things to watch out for

There are a number of species of mushroom that are poisonous, and although some resemble certain edible species, eating them could be fatal. Eating mushrooms gathered in the wild is risky and should not be undertaken by individuals not knowledgeable in mushroom identification, unless the individuals limit themselves to a relatively small number of good edible species that are visually distinctive. More generally, and particularly with gilled mushrooms, separating edible from poisonous species requires meticulous attention to detail; there is no single trait by which all toxic mushrooms can be identified, nor one by which all edible mushrooms can be identified.

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The Journal of Nutrition – The American Society for Nutrition,, retrieved 05/2009.

Wikipedia,, retrieved 05/2009.

Prepared by the editors at Harvard Health Publications in consultation with Meir J. Stampfer, M.D., Dr.P.H., Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition, Vitamins and Minerals: What you need to know,  Harvard School of Public Health, 2008.

Bratman, Steven, and David Kroll. Natural Health Bible. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1999.

Paul Pitchford. Healing with whole food, North Atlantic Books, 2002.

Goldman L, Ausiello D. Cecil Textbook of Medicine. 22nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: WB Saunders, 2004.

Norton Greenberger M.D. and Roanne Weisman, 4 Weeks to Healthy Digestion, Harvard School of Public Health. (2008)

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