You Can Actually Eat The Zombie Fungus From The Last Of Us

Many are afraid of even the most mundane varieties of mushrooms, and picky eaters often steer clear of the food group altogether. That said, it's no surprise that the fictional fungus from the hit video game and HBO series "The Last of Us" haunted fans even before they learned it was based on a real-life phenomenon. In the show's post-apocalyptic world, an unnamed strain of the very real Cordyceps fungus has possessed the bodies of human victims, transforming them into feral monsters that terrorize protagonists Ellie and Joel on their epic journey west.

In the real world, the Cordyceps controls insects to do its bidding. The parasitic fungus might sound like it's been ripped from a Hollywood script, but it has been around for ages. And there's more: Cordyceps militaris is more than any old zombie fungus, it's a culinary staple. While blood-thirsty zombies are always compelling, the truth about this mushroom is more complex (and delicious) than most might expect. 

What is Cordyceps?

The many species of Cordyceps spread via airborne spores to an insect — taking control of the host's brain and controlling its body. The infamous parasitic Ophiocordyceps unilateralis shoots out a brilliant tendril through an ant's head when it's finished (via YouTube).

It is worth noting that the most popularly consumed form of the fungus, Cordyceps militaris, can survive without parasitizing a host. Yes, that means one of the most famous of the so-called zombie fungi isn't even that zombie-like. Even so, the grotesque runners, clickers, and bloaters in "The Last of Us" are the terrifying — but very far-fetched — imaginings of how Cordyceps might look if it ever adapted to live and grow inside a human host. Surprisingly, it's not Cordyceps but other fungi (none of which have appeared in an acclaimed HBO series yet) which pose a real risk of human infection and harm.

It's easy to understand why some might still object to consuming a mushroom synonymous with the words "zombie" and "parasite." However, putting those fears aside allows you to try this delicious and nutrient-rich food.

This fungus might be tastier (and healthier) than you think

Eating insects may not be a big deal anymore. After all, Gordon Ramsey does it. But, what about eating a fungus that can control an insect's brain? Cordyceps militaris has long been an ingredient in Chinese medicine and cuisine, where it can add a layer of rich umami.

Besides its sweet, complex flavor, the edible fungus has also been known to provide varied health benefits for everything from heart health to anti-aging. Other effects of the zombie mushroom include fighting cancer tumor growth and Type 2 Diabetes. Ironically, it has been found to improve brain health. According to a 2018 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Cordyceps was shown to aid in learning and memory. So don't worry, you can rest reassured you won't turn into a zombie after you try it. The odds are higher that the fungus will make you smarter!