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What Are the Benefits of Fungus?

by Rob Callahan

Overview

Fungi, such as yeast, mold and mushrooms abound throughout the world. While many types of fungi can be dangerous, some have beneficial uses. In their natural state, as part of an ecosystem, fungi break down organic matter and nourish both plants and animals. They also have culinary uses. Yeast, for instance, is useful for making bread, while many types of mushrooms add flavor and nutrition to a meal. Fungi also have a number of medicinal properties.

Environmental Benefits

In the wild, mushrooms and molds are an integral part of the ecosystem. These fungi help cycle carbon, minerals and other nutrients that benefit local ecology. Certain fungi also decompose dead organic matter and return it to the soil. Many mushrooms develop symbiotic relationships with plants, growing among plant roots and helping them obtain a greater number of nutrients to the root system than they would in the mushrooms' absence. This type of augmented root system --also known as a mycorrhiza system-- results in healthier plants. Some fungi serve as food for other animals within the ecosystem.

Medicinal Uses

Fungi have a long history of use in both ancient and modern medicine. As of June 1994, the British publication "The Independent" already reported the isolation of 220 anti-tumor and 42 antiviral compounds from fungi. Shiitake mushrooms, for instance, have antihistamine properties and have been used in the treatment of stomach cancers. Fungi also have antibiotic properties. A well-known example is penicillin, a common and effective antibiotic that dates back to the second world war. Penicillin comes from the fungus Penicillium, a mold that develops on rotten food. Additional medicinal uses for fungi include high blood pressure treatment and wound healing.

Culinary Benefits

There are several well-known edible fungi, including portabella mushrooms, shitake mushrooms and truffles. The Northern Ireland Fungus Group also lists a number of less famous edible mushrooms, such as horse mushrooms, jew’s ears, boletes, morels and ceps. In a 2002 edition of the "Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry," researchers reported the distinct nutritional properties of several mushroom species. Indeed, mushrooms often stand out among vegetables as good sources of nearly all amino acids. They also tend to be rich in minerals and dietary fiber.

Considerations

Supermarket-bought fungi are undoubtedly the safer way to obtain your supply, but experimenting in the wild can also be fun. If you opt for the second option, make sure you first familiarize yourself with edible fungi species and stick to species you know. Fungi can be as dangerous as delicious. It all depends on the species. To avoid poisoning, the Northern Ireland Fungus Group especially advises against eating raw, wild mushrooms. Because of their potentially weaker immune system, you should avoid giving wild fungi to children, as well as old or sick individuals.

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This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.