There are thousands of mushroom species worldwide, but we only eat about 25 of them. Mushrooms come in all shapes, sizes, and nutrient profiles. Some may be small, but they are certainly mighty vegetables.
Mushrooms have a long history of cultural significance across the world. Researchers have found the presence of mushrooms in human diets as early as the Stone Age.
In fact, they are so important to so many cultures that there is a whole field of study — ethnomycology — that explores the sociological and cultural interactions between mushrooms and people.
“Eastern cultures have been using mushrooms for medicinal purposes for a long time and there may be a lot of aspects about the medicinal properties of mushrooms that we don’t yet understand,” said Tom Horton, PhD, a mycology professor at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry
More recently, in the United States, mushrooms have gained popularity and become available for commercial use in extracts such as coffee, powders, and pill form, for their dietary and health benefits. This article discusses the unique nutritional profiles of mushrooms as well as the health benefits from eating them.
1. Mushrooms are packed with nutrients
Nutrition-wise, mushrooms are classified as a vegetable. Like most vegetables, they’re low-cal, low-fat, and contain some protein. For example, one cup of raw white button mushrooms — the most widely eaten mushroom in the US — contains:
- 15.4 calories
- 0.2 grams of fat
- 0.7 gram of fiber
- 2.2 grams of protein
However, mushrooms are distinct from most other vegetables because they are also a fungus. This quality means they contain some unique nutritional benefits. Here are some of the nutrients that make mushrooms so healthy:
- Fiber: Most of the carbohydrates in mushrooms are fibers. These types of plant-based fibers can help with weight management and regulating blood glucose levels.
- Potassium: Potassium is an essential nutrient for maintaining proper fluid balance in the body. White button mushrooms are especially rich in potassium.
- Selenium: Selenium is an antioxidant, plays an important role in thyroid function, and can strengthen the immune system. Goat’s foot and king bolete mushrooms are both known to be rich in selenium.
- Vitamin D: Mushrooms are the only type of produce that contains vitamin D. The benefits of vitamin D include boosting the immune system and helping the body absorb calcium and phosphorous which can maintain strong bones and may reduce the risk of certain cancers. Mushrooms have enzymes called ergosterol, which when exposed to UV rays, produce vitamin D. Cremini and portabella are two types of mushrooms that contain high levels of ergosterols.
- Antioxidants: Specifically, the antioxidant ergothioneine. Mushrooms are the only food that contains this antioxidant, which preliminary research suggests may reduce the risk of certain age-related diseases like Parkison’s disease. Porcini and white button mushrooms contain high amounts of ergothioneine.
If you are looking to include more vitamin D in your diet, it is important to remember that vitamin D is only available for mushrooms grown outdoors and exposed to sunlight or exposed to sun lamps during growth.
2. Eating mushrooms may help with digestion, diabetes, and weight management
Mushrooms contain both soluble and insoluble fibers.
- Soluble fiber absorbs in water and reduces the amount of cholesterol — including LDL, which is considered to be bad cholesterol — that your body absorbs into the bloodstream.
- Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water but can help food pass through the digestive tract, which can also help people that struggle with constipation.
Both types of fiber are important in maintaining overall health.
High-fiber mushrooms include button mushrooms, chanterelles, maitake, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms. Oyster mushrooms, specifically, have been studied and shown to improve diabetes by lowering blood glucose and cholesterol levels.
Mushrooms may also be helpful for weight management. Some mushrooms, like portabella, have meaty textures that offer a vegetarian-friendly, lower-calorie alternative to meat, such as mushroom burgers.
Moreover, mushrooms are around 90% water by weight. This, along with their fiber, means eating mushrooms instead of high-fat, high-calorie foods may help you control your weight while still feeling satisfied.
3. Certain mushrooms may help prevent cancer
A main type of fiber in mushrooms is the polysaccharide, beta-glucan. This is a soluble fiber that is associated with anti-cancer and immune-boosting properties. Shitake and oyster mushrooms contain the highest concentration of beta-glucans.
One study, published in Nutrition and Cancer in 2010, found that women who ate more mushrooms were less likely to have breast cancer. However, the researchers clarify that more research is needed, and mushrooms are only one, small potential factor to consider when trying to establish guidelines for preventing breast cancer.
For the study, over 600 Korean women reported their typical intake of 103 different foods in the previous year. After accounting for external factors like age and smoking, researchers found that women with breast cancer reported eating fewer mushrooms on average — 5.1 grams/day — than women without breast cancer, who ate 9.7 grams/day. The most common mushrooms the women said they ate were button mushroom, oyster mushroom, and the winter fungus.
Additionally, the large brown turkey tail mushroom has high concentrations of polysaccharide-K (PSK) — an active complex carbohydrate — which has anti-inflammatory properties. This type of mushroom may help treat stomach cancer and help immune cells damaged by chemotherapy recover to normal function. PSK is often consumed as an extract in teas or capsule forms.
The way you cook your mushrooms can affect the nutrients
Overcooking mushrooms can completely deplete the nutritional components of mushrooms by killing their bioactive compounds. Therefore, cooking mushrooms requires a delicate balance.
A study published in 2016 in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition found that the best way to make lion’s mane on mushroom soup is to grill or microwave them. The researchers compared the nutrient changes in mushrooms after they had been boiled, deep-fried, grilled, and microwaved. The grilled and microwaved mushrooms retained the highest levels of antioxidants and beta-glucans.
Anytime you buy mushrooms you should always store them in a paper bag in your fridge. This is because paper allows the mushrooms to breathe compared to plastic which traps moisture and causes the mushrooms to rot faster.
Usually, if the mushrooms are fresh when you buy them, they should stay good for about one week.
Mushrooms readily absorb water, which means once you wash them, you will probably end up with soggier mushrooms than you wanted. An alternative approach to cleaning your mushrooms is to use a small brush or paper towel to get the dirt off the mushrooms. Morels, specifically, should not be washed because the flavor is in the spores which can be washed out.
If you’re interested in foraging wild edible mushrooms, Horton recommends starting by learning a handful of easy-to-identify mushrooms. He suggests starting by learning to identify wild maitake, oyster, and lion’s mane mushrooms.
“These are easy to identify, delicious, and have good immune enhancement qualities,” Horton says. Additionally, most areas have local mushroom clubs with knowledgeable people that can help you identify delicious edibles and avoid toxic ones. Be extremely careful when foraging for mushrooms, as there are some mushrooms that can be toxic and even deadly like the Death Cap Mushroom.
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