Not only are they delicious, now researchers find that mushrooms have remarkably high amounts of two potential antiaging antioxidants.
Mushrooms have never gotten much superstar treatment in the trendy wonderfoods department. While kale and blueberries get all the love, mushrooms have just waited patiently in the wings, known to be delicious, but often considered nutritionally ho-hum.
But now could be their time to shine; researchers from Penn State have discovered that mushrooms contain unusually high amounts of two antioxidants that some experts believe could help fight aging and boost health.
The team of scientists found that mushrooms contain high levels of ergothioneine and glutathione, both important antioxidants, explains Robert Beelman, professor emeritus of food science and director of the Penn State Center for Plant and Mushroom Products for Health.
"There's a theory – the free radical theory of aging – that's been around for a long time that says when we oxidize our food to produce energy there's a number of free radicals that are produced that are side products of that action and many of these are quite toxic," says Beelman. "The body has mechanisms to control most of them, including ergothioneine and glutathione, but eventually enough accrue to cause damage, which has been associated with many of the diseases of aging, like cancer, coronary heart disease and Alzheimer's."
"What we found is that, without a doubt, mushrooms are highest dietary source of these two antioxidants taken together, and that some types are really packed with both of them," says Beelman.
Among the 13 species tested, porcini were found to have the highest amount of the two compounds.
"We found that the porcini has the highest, by far, of any we tested," says Beelman. "This species is really popular in Italy where searching for it has become a national pastime."
Even common mushrooms types, like the humble white button, while having less of the antioxidants than porcini still had higher amounts than most other foods, Beelman notes.
And thankfully, cooking them doesn’t appear to alter the compounds. "Ergothioneine are very heat stable," he says.
Also heartening to hear is that unlike the nutritional value that comes from some foods, it appears that one need not eat an entire of forest-full of mushrooms to reap the potential benefits.
"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 Beelman.
"Now, whether that's just a correlation or causative, we don't know. But, it's something to look into, especially because the difference between the countries with low rates of neurodegenerative diseases is about 3 milligrams per day, which is about five button mushrooms each day."
While I’m not so sure that “Five mushrooms a day keeps the doctor away” will become a proverb for the modern foodie, it’s nonetheless great to learn that the mighty mushroom is carrying its nutritional weight along with everything else it offers.
The research was published in the journal Food Chemestry.