Toxic Twin of Morel Mushrooms Can Cause Illness, Death

Regarded as a rare delicacy, morel mushrooms are among the most venerated and valuable fungi in the culinary world. But before they are cleaned, sliced, and slowly sweated on a bed of shallots, there is one thing anyone preparing them must do and that is to make sure that the mushrooms they are about to prepare are really morels. Because false morel mushrooms, Gyromitra, can kill you.

The photo on the left is from The Danish Morel Project and was published in the New York Times. The photo on the right was taken by D. Wilsey and appeared in a University of Minnesota Extension publication called Harvesting Morel Mushrooms.

Gyromitra mushrooms

Gyromitra mushrooms contain the toxin gyromitrin which is eventually converted in the stomach to monomethylhydrazine (MMH), a chemical also used in rocket fuel. In the human body, MMH causes the destruction of red blood cells, kidney and liver failure, seizures, coma, and death. Cooking can reduce the toxicity of these mushrooms, but the cooking vapors can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat.

In 2021, 6,783 poisoning cases from mushrooms were reported to the National Poison Data System (NPDS) annual report produced by the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC). Three people died. Most of the time, the specific type of mushroom that was ingested is unknown, but there were 32 cases where mushrooms containing MMH were reported with no fatalities.

Morel mushrooms are difficult to cultivate and are often gathered in the wild. Many Morel mushrooms consumed in the U.S. are imported. And there have been instances where Gyromitra have been included in these imported shipments.

“In the past, shipments of canned and dried morel mushrooms have been detained due to the presence of Gyromitra esculenta. This mushroom species is known to produce monomethylhydrazine (MMH), a substance which causes severe gastrointestinal disturbance and, in some cases, death,” a May 2022 import alert from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated.

Because of the serious health risk they pose, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people should not eat wild mushrooms unless an expert identifies them as safe.

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