Mushroomscontain some of the most potent natural medicines on the planet. Of the 140,000 species of mushroom-forming fungi, science is familiar with only 10 percent, according to world-renown mycologist Paul Stamets, who has written six books on the topic.
About 100 species of mushrooms are being studied for their health-promoting benefits. Of those hundred, about a half dozen really stand out for their ability to deliver a tremendous boost to your immune system.
It’s important to eat only organically grown mushrooms because they absorb and concentrate whatever they grow in — good OR bad. This is what gives mushrooms their potency. Mushrooms are known to concentrate heavy metals, as well as air and water pollutants, so healthy growing conditions is a critical factor.
While it may sound strange, we’re actually more closely related to fungi than we are to any other kingdom, as we share the same pathogens, meaning bacteria and viruses.
As a defense against bacterial invasion, fungi have developed strong antibiotics, which also happen to be effective for us humans. Penicillin, streptomycin, and tetracycline all come from fungal extracts.
Often grouped with vegetables, mushrooms provide many of the nutritional attributes of produce, as well as attributes more commonly found in meat, beans or grains. Mushrooms are low in calories, fat-free, cholesterol-free and very low in sodium, yet they provide important nutrients, including selenium, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin D and more.
The focus on the nutritional value of brightly colored fruits and vegetables has unintentionally left mushrooms in the dark. Mushrooms provide a number of nutrients:
Mushrooms are a good source of B vitamins, including riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid, which help to provide energy by breaking down proteins, fats and carbohydrates. B vitamins also play an important role in the nervous system.
Pantothenic acid helps with the production of hormones and also plays an important role in the nervous system.
Riboflavin helps maintain healthy red blood cells.
Niacin promotes healthy skin and makes sure the digestive and nervous systems function properly
Mushrooms are also a source of important minerals:
Selenium is a mineral that works as an antioxidant to protect body cells from damage that might lead to heart disease, some cancers and other diseases of aging. It also has been found to be important for the immune system and fertility in men. Many foods of animal origin and grains are good sources of selenium, but mushrooms are among the richest sources of selenium in the produce aisle and provide 8-22 mcg per serving. This is good news for vegetarians, whose sources of selenium are limited.
Ergothioneine is a naturally occurring antioxidant that also may help protect the body’s cells. Mushrooms provide 2.8-4.9 mg of ergothioneine per serving of white, portabella or crimini mushrooms.
Copper helps make red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. Copper also helps keep bones and nerves healthy.
Potassium is an important mineral many people do not get enough of. It aids in the maintenance of normal fluid and mineral balance, which helps control blood pressure. It also plays a role in making sure nerves and muscles, including the heart, function properly2. Mushrooms have 98-376 mg of potassium per 84 gram serving, which is 3-11 percent of the Daily Value.
Beta-glucans, found in numerous mushroom species, have shown marked immunity-stimulating effects, contribute to resistance against allergies and may also participate in physiological processes related to the metabolism of fats and sugars in the human body. The beta-glucans contained in oyster, shiitake and split gill mushrooms are considered to be the most effective.
Scientists at City of Hope were some of the first to find a potential link between mushrooms and a decreased likelihood of tumor growth and development in cells and animals. City of Hope researchers now plan to apply this research to human clinical trials.
Antioxidants and Immunity
Mushrooms are the leading source of the essential antioxidant selenium in the produce aisle. Antioxidants, like selenium, protect body cells from damage that might lead to chronic diseases. They help to strengthen the immune system, as well. In addition, mushrooms provide ergothioneine, a naturally occurring antioxidant that may help protect the body’s cells.
Mushrooms are hearty and filling. Preliminary research suggests increasing intake of low-energy-density foods (meaning few calories given the volume of food), specifically mushrooms, in place of high-energy-density foods, like lean ground beef, can be an effective method for reducing daily energy and fat intake while still feeling full and satiated after the meal.
Umami and Sodium
Umami is the fifth basic taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Derived from the Japanese word umai, meaning “delicious,” umami (pronounced oo-MAH-mee) is described as a savory, brothy, rich or meaty taste sensation. It’s a satisfying sense of deep, complete flavor, balancing savory flavors and full-bodied taste with distinctive qualities of aroma and mouthfeel. The more umami present in food, the more flavorful it will be. All mushrooms are a rich source of umami and the darker the mushroom the more umami it contains.
Another interesting characteristic about umami is that it counterbalances saltiness and allows for less salt to be used in a meal, without compromising flavor. “Tasting Success with Cutting Salt,” a collaborative report from the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America, suggests cooking with umami-rich ingredients, like mushrooms, instead of salt to reduce the overall sodium in a dish.
When building your plate to maximize vitamin D, consider mushrooms – they’re the only source of vitamin D in the produce aisle and one of the few non-fortified food sources. In fact, the IOM recognizes them as the exception to the rule that plant foods don’t naturally contain vitamin D.
MyPlate – which replaced the Food Pyramid – is a simple visual reference and educational tool that reminds Americans how and what to eat to best meet the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. Thanks to their nutrient-profile and versatility, mushrooms are uniquely suited to do just that. Fresh mushrooms can be added to everyday dishes to provide an extra serving of vegetables and deliver important nutrients including niacin, selenium, and riboflavin. Mushrooms also have vitamin D, ergothionene, and potassium.
Often grouped with vegetables, mushrooms provide many of the nutritional attributes of produce, as well as attributes more commonly found in meat, beans or grains. Mushrooms are low in calories, fat-free, cholesterol-free and very low in sodium, yet they provide several nutrients that are typically found in animal foods or grains.
Like all fruits and vegetables, mushrooms are naturally gluten free, and make a delicious and nutritious addition to a gluten-free diet.
Learn more about the functional properties of mushrooms and their potential role in lipid management through various research studies linked here.
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3.National Institutes of Health. Medline Plus.www.nlm.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002414.htm
4.U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory. 2009. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 22.www.ars.usda.gov/nutrientdata.
5.Dubost, N.J., et al. (2006). Identification and quantification of ergothioneine in cultivated mushrooms by liquid chromatography-mass spectroscopy. International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms, 8, 215-22.
6.Rop, O., Mlcek, J., & Jurikova, T. (2009). Beta-glucans in higher fungi and their health effects.Nutrition Reviews, 67, 624-631.
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8.Kasabian, D., & Kasabian, A. (2005). The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami. New York: Universe Publishing.
9.U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition. A Food Labeling Guide. September, 1994 (Editorial revisions, June, 1999)http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/flg-toc.html