Mushrooms are nutritional superstars that make scientists wax poetic.
In a 2012 study looking at the role of culinary-medicinal mushrooms on human welfare, the authors describe mushrooms as part of the fungal biota “characterized by wonder.” Wonder indeed. Of course mushrooms have some magical connotations, thanks to those that inspire hallucinogenic reveries or provide cover for woodland fairies. But they are also little eco powerhouses. As the above-mentioned authors note, “They rise up from lignocellulosic wastes: yet they become so bountiful and nourishing. Mushrooms are environmentally friendly. They biosynthesize their own food from agricultural crop residues, which would otherwise cause health hazards.”
Right on, mushrooms! And beyond all of that, there's more. People always ask me if mushroom are healthy. While other cultures have long relied on the health properties of mushrooms, western society has been slower to catch on. We hear a lot about the impressive benefits of vibrant berries and leafy greens, for instance, but mushrooms don’t get much fanfare. Maybe it’s their lack of density or wan hue that make people question their nutritive value, but the truth is, mushrooms have a lot to offer. Consider the following:
They lack the bad thingsMushrooms offer vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and a host of health benefits – but they are notably lacking in high calories, cholesterol, and sodium.
They boast a bounty of B vitaminsOh, the beautiful Bs. B vitamins boost energy by breaking down proteins, fats and carbohydrates in the body; they also have big jobs in the nervous system. Along with folate, mushrooms have riboflavin (B2), which helps with the production of hormones; niacin (B3), which is important for healthy red blood cells; and pantothenic acid (B5) which plays a role in healthy skin, and helps the digestive and nervous systems do their things.
They are rich in seleniumThe Mushroom Council notes that mushrooms are the leading source of the antioxidant selenium in the produce aisle, saying that “Antioxidants, like selenium, protect body cells from damage that might lead to chronic diseases and help to strengthen the immune system, as well.” Along with being important for the immune system and fertility in men, selenium may protect against heart disease, some cancers and other diseases of aging.
They are one of the few plant-based sources of Vitamin DWhite button mushrooms are one of the few non-animal sources of vitamin D, which is amplified when they are exposed to ultraviolet light – which most growers do.
From one comprehensive study about vitamin D in mushrooms, the authors conclude: “Vitamin D deficiency is a pandemic. It has increased the risk of skeletal and chronic diseases associated with vitamin D deficiency worldwide. Therefore, obtaining vitamin D from sensible sun exposure, foods that naturally contain vitamin D, and from supplementation with vitamin D is imperative to maintain a healthy lifestyle .… Mushrooms exposed to UVB radiation contain a significant amount of vitamin D2 and therefore is an excellent alternative food source for vitamin D, especially for vegans.”
They have the potential to protect against cancerNot only have mushrooms been shown to have potential in protecting against cancer by shielding cells from DNA damage, but also in inhibiting tumor formation. One study concludes: The present review updates the recent findings on the pharmacologically active compounds, their anti-tumor potential, and underlying mechanism of biological action in order to raise awareness for further investigations to develop cancer therapeutics from mushrooms. The mounting evidences from various research groups across the globe, regarding anti-tumor application of mushroom extracts unarguably make it a fast-track research area worth mass attention.”
They help with neurodegenerative diseaseResearchers have found that mushrooms may play an important role in the prevention of many age-associated neurological dysfunctions, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, concluding that mushrooms “can be considered as useful therapeutic agents in the management and/or treatment of neurodegeneration diseases.”
They can protect the heart“Mushrooms have been shown to have some therapeutic properties that can help to lower cholesterol, particularly in overweight adults, as well as phytonutrients that can help prevent cells from sticking to blood vessel walls and forming plaque build-up,” notes the BBC. “This in turn then helps protect the heart by maintaining healthy blood pressure and circulation.” The study they refer to here doesn’t stop at the heart, concluding that, “Mushroom polysaccharides individually, added to food, and in combination with medicinal drugs could be used therapeutically to help prevent and protect against, at low cost, the adverse effects of some of the major diseases that afflict humans.” Those conditions include cancer, diabetes, infections, and obesity.
They are unusually packed with anti-aging potentialOne study found that mushrooms contain significant;y high levels of ergothioneine and glutathione, both important antioxidants unusually that some experts believe could help fight aging and boost health.
"It's preliminary, but you can see that countries that have more ergothioneine in their diets, countries like France and Italy, also have lower incidences of neurodegenerative diseases, while people in countries like the United States, which has low amounts of ergothioneine in the diet, have a higher probability of diseases like Parkinson's Disease and Alzheimer's," says one of the study’s authors. Porcini had the highest levels, but even white button mushrooms have higher amounts than most foods.
For more about mushrooms, see the related stories below. And I'll be right back ... going to go eat part of the fungal biota “characterized by wonder" for lunch.