Are mushrooms vegan?

Are Mushrooms Vegan? Mostly… But I Didn’t Know This

On the surface, it may sound like trolling to ask if mushrooms are vegan. But when you actually dig into the issue, you find some really bizarre stuff. Even as a 12-year vegan, I was surprised by what I learned!

So, are mushrooms vegan? Most mushrooms are definitely vegan. They are fungi, not animals, and they do not feel pain. However, one mushroom is a gray area for vegans: Truffles. Dogs or pigs are often used for truffle hunting, and some dogs actually get poisoned or killed on the job.

I was blown away to learn about the so-called “dark side” of the truffle industry. I’ll cover all of that below, along with a clear explanation of why other mushrooms are definitely vegan—even the carnivorous oyster mushroom.

Why Most Mushrooms Are Definitely Vegan

1. Mushrooms Are Not Animals.

One simple definition of “vegan” is someone who does not consume animals or animal by-products. And mushrooms are not animals or animal by-products. So they don’t need to be excluded.

Arguments have been made that mushrooms are “closer to animals than plants.” Oyster mushrooms eat small animals like roundworms for nitrogen, for example. Truffle mushrooms produce endocannabinoids, a type of signaling molecule that animals also produce.

But the fact is that mushrooms are not animals. They’re fungi, like yeast (which is also vegan).

The real question is this: Are mushrooms “close to animals” in a way that is essentially relevant to veganism? And that leads us to reason #2…

2. Mushroom Have No Nervous System.

White mushroom.

The real reason vegans don’t eat animals is that most of them are thought to be sentient. And there’s no good evidence that mushrooms are sentient.

In order to feel pain, most animals have a nervous system: a brain, nerves, and nociceptors (sensory receptors for pain). I’ve not seen anyone claim that mushrooms have any of these.

Showing that mushrooms share some characteristics with animals really doesn’t matter (for veganism) unless those characteristics are sentience and consciousness. Which they’re not.

Yes, a fungus may react to stimuli in a way that helps sustain its life… but if it doesn’t suffer, that’s not morally relevant.

For more on vegan ethics and what’s behind the vegan philosophy, check out my mega-post on vegan moral arguments. There are actually several contending views within veganism, which I outline there. But none would be opposed to mushrooms overall.

3. The Arguably Non-Vegan Mushroom: Truffles.

The reason why truffle mushrooms may not be vegan is that dogs or pigs are often used to find the truffles.

As I’ll explain below, many truffle dogs seem to enjoy the job. But there is, unfortunately, some cruelty in the industry, too. Some truffle dogs actually get poisoned and killed on the job (details below).

Many vegans would consider truffles to be vegan anyway, but it’s a gray area. It depends on your definition of veganism, along with the specific source of truffles in question.

Are Truffles Vegan?

Vegans don’t agree about truffles. The main issue is that dogs or pigs are often used by truffle hunters. Although training for truffle dogs is not usually cruel, some dogs have actually been poisoned and killed through their involvement in the truffle trade.

Truffles are a kind of mushroom found in Italy, France, the Pacific Northwestern U.S., and just a few other places. Before I get into the (bizarre) details, there are two things you should know about truffles:

  1. Truffles are extremely rare and valuable. Several varieties are worth over $1,000 per pound. This creates a dynamic not present with other mushrooms.
  2. Truffles have a strong scent. And for this reason, dogs can be trained to find them. (And pigs are naturally drawn to them. More on that below).

Dogs and Pigs Are Used to Find Truffles

Truffles grow underground, but they produce a strong scent. For this reason, animals are often used to help detect the scent.

The most common animals used to find truffles are dogs, particularly the Lagotto Romagnolo breed, and female pigs.

The reason pigs were chosen to hunt truffles is that the scent of truffles is very similar to a male pig sex hormone in their saliva. Therefore, female pigs are naturally drawn to it.

Today, truffle dogs (or “truffle hounds”) are more common. In Italy, using pigs for truffle hunting was actually banned in 1985. That’s because the pigs cause more damage to the mycelium of the truffles (like, the root structure basically?). Pigs also eat more truffles, causing expensive losses.

Some vegans are opposed to all animal use by humans, including pet ownership. For those vegans, it’s clear: Most truffles are not vegan. (It is possible to find truffles without using animals—but if you’re buying truffles, I’d expect that a dog was used.)

But more often, vegans are concerned about exploitation and cruelty—not just “animal use” by itself. So, we must now ask…

Is “Truffle Dog Cruelty” a Thing?

Often, when animals are trained to do a job, there can be cruel training methods involved. But is this really an issue when it comes to truffle dogs?

The following video shows how one woman trains her truffle dogs. It’s honestly very similar to how pet owners train their dogs to sit or stay. Nothing cruel involved—just treats as a reward.

Granted, others may train their truffle dogs differently. Maybe if someone was training high numbers of truffle hounds, they would cut corners on their care—but I haven’t seen much evidence of this.

I only found one comment referring to truffle dogs being kept in “poor conditions,” and it was a Facebook comment with no source. In PETA’s blog post about truffles, they didn’t even mention it as a concern.

Indeed, everything I’ve found about truffle hunting suggests the dogs enjoy it. Here’s a description of from Artisa, a plant-based cheese-maker who uses truffles, about their visit to a truffle farm in Australia:

“One local farmer has two rescue dogs that he has trained to be excellent truffle hunters. What I saw on my visit, was a much-loved dog running around outdoors, nose to the ground, and occasionally stopping at a patch that smelled particularly good. She then sat down and waited to be given a treat.”

So at this point in doing my research, the use of truffle dogs seemed pretty benign. It’s similar to the issue of service dogs: While we can never get truly informed consent to sign a dog up to be a service dog, they do seem to enjoy it. (Read my post on vegans and service dogs for more on that. )

But then, I searched “truffle dog cruelty” on Google to see what would come up, and I found some entirely different issues besides training.

What Truffle Dog Abuse Actually Looks Like

Believe it or not, in some places in Europe, truffle hunting is such a competitive business that truffle hunters will sabotage each other. And one way they do this is by poisoning, killing, or stealing each others’ dogs.

Don’t believe me? Check out this article from the Washington Post: “In Italy, Truffle-Hunting Dogs Find Death Instead.” Here’s just one quote:

“Since the [truffle] hunt started Sept. 28, at least 40 dogs have died after eating meat morsels laced with strychnine or weedkiller and dropped in the woods, according to dog owners, veterinarians and forestry service workers in this corner of Umbria, 110 miles north of Rome.”

While that article describes a particularly bad year for truffle dog poisoning (1997), it clarifies that “Malicious poisoning in the pursuit of truffles is not new in rural Italy.”

I also found an article from The Atlantic titled “The Dark Side of the Truffle Trade.” The article describes a ton of insane stuff, actually. But one detail was about how truffle hounds often get stolen:

“In August, truffle hunter Luke Fegatilli had three hounds worth €7,000 stolen from his farm in Celano, Italy. … ‘The dogs disappear into a kind of black hole,’ Fegatilli told the local press, adding that there was a ‘real war’ unfolding in his countryside. Newspaper ads displaying pictures of stolen truffle dogs are not rare.”

Because truffles are so expensive, the dogs trained to find them are also expensive. This makes them a target.

I don’t have a sense of exactly how common these issues are. It’s possible they get press coverage just because of how surprising the stories are. The article citing 40 dead truffle dogs in one season is over twenty years old now—although the Atlantic article was more recent, from 2014.

It seems the truffle industry has been in the process of shifting toward plantations rather than wild-grown truffles. In that case, life could be very different for the dogs. Life is probably fine for most truffle dogs.

Still, I do think it’s a valid question to ask whether truffles are vegan. To me, it presents a more serious and complex problem compared to other mushrooms.

Side Issue: Truffles and Endocannabinoids

In my mind, this next point is really nothing compared to the truffle dog madness, but it’s another argument you may hear against vegans eating truffles: Endocannabinoids.

Oddly, truffle mushrooms produce anandamide. This is an endocannabinoid signaling molecule that’s also produced by animals. In humans, it’s part of what gives you a “runner’s high” after exercise.

Cannabis expert Michael Backus has even argued that maybe vegans should be concerned about this property in mushrooms. But I’m really not.

As I mentioned above, being “similar to animals” in a random way, like producing the same molecule, does not mean a mushroom’s life and survival are morally relevant.

The fact that anandamide is a signaling molecule may cause some concern. Do mushrooms have some kind of nervous system after all? But at this point, there’s no reason to think there’s a conscious entity inside mushrooms who suffers. I wouldn’t worry about it.

Is Truffle Oil Vegan?

Truffle oil is considered vegan. Although some vegans oppose the use of dogs and pigs to find real truffles, truffle oil is usually made synthetically with a compound called 2,4-dithiapentane. Therefore, truffle oil does not involve the use of animals, and it is vegan.

Many chefs hate truffle oil because it’s a fake, one-dimensional version of what truffles actually taste like. But if you’re a vegan who’s against truffles, maybe synthetic truffle oil is a blessing. Keep in mind that some truffle oils may contain actual pieces of truffle in them, however.

Are Oyster Mushrooms Vegan?

Another mushroom that raises questions for some vegans is the oyster mushroom. The issue of whether oyster mushrooms are vegan is interesting because they’re carnivorous—they eat tiny animals like roundworms.

Basically, oyster mushrooms have these tentacle-like things called hyphae. These hyphae have a specific scent that attracts nematodes. But it’s a trap! The hyphae also paralyze the nematodes.

Then the mushroom literally grows down the prey’s throat and eats it from the inside out. Yikes. Sounds vicious. (More details here.) But what does this mean for vegans?

Are oyster mushrooms vegan? Oyster mushrooms are considered vegan. Although they are a carnivorous fungus, that is not essentially different from a plant getting nutrients from soil containing dead bugs. Oyster mushrooms are not animals, and they are not sentient, so eating them is vegan.

An interesting related issue: Are oysters and other bivalves vegan? They’re animals, but they don’t have a central nervous system… So some vegans—called ostrovegans—argue that it’s ethical to eat them. Learn more in my blog post all about it.

More Vegan Mushroom Questions

Are Fried Mushrooms Vegan?

Fried mushrooms are sometimes vegan, but not always. Sometimes the batter contains eggs or buttermilk—other times, it’s fully plant-based. If you’re eating at a restaurant, you may want to ask your server if the batter contains eggs or dairy.

In general, the cooking oil used for fried mushrooms will usually be vegan. You may want to check that they aren’t being fried in butter, but I don’t think that would ever be the case with deep-fried mushrooms.

For more on fried foods, oils, and which ones are vegan, check out my post “Can Vegans Eat Fried Food?

Are Breaded Mushrooms Vegan?

Breaded mushrooms often contain eggs and are not vegan for that reason. However, you can make your own vegan breaded mushrooms at home. Simply replace the egg in the recipe. This recipe does it with chickpea flour and plant-based milk.

Are Stuffed Mushrooms Vegan?

Stuffed mushrooms usually contain cheese, butter, or meat, so they’re not usually vegan. However, you can make your own vegan stuffed mushrooms. Simply replace the animal products with plant-based alternatives. Here’s a great vegan stuffed mushroom recipe.

Are Psychedelic Mushrooms Vegan?

Psychedelic mushrooms are generally considered vegan, as they are not animal products and are not sentient. Also, as I was learning more about exactly what psychedelic mushrooms are, I found out that:

  1. Some people have found that eating vegan may result in better psychedelic trips. Of course, this is all anecdotal evidence—no real research that I saw. But interesting nonetheless.
  2. Some people have written about how veganism and psychedelic experiences may be mutually reinforcing. That is, the spiritual “oneness” you can experience during a trip tends to mesh well with compassion for all living creatures.

Licking hallucinogenic frogs may be less vegan than psychedelic mushrooms… But I’m not sure how many of you are doing that!

Are Mushrooms Considered Meat?

Mushrooms are not considered meat. Meat is the flesh of an animal used as food—but mushrooms are fungi, not animals. That said, mushrooms can be used as meat replacements in many dishes. They share a similar texture, a similar umami flavor, and some of the same nutrients.

Mushrooms are often used as meat replacements. One particularly popular dish is the portabello burger.

Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey

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2. This is the best vegan starter kit I know of. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that help you transition to a healthy plant-based diet the right way. The advice is spot-on, and it has print-outs and checklists that make it easy to implement. Read my full review of Nutriciously here.

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