The health benefits of mushrooms include relief from high cholesterol levels, breast cancer, prostrate cancer, and diabetes. It also helps in weight loss, and increases the strength of your immune system.
Almost all of us are familiar with mushrooms and their miraculous, beneficial powers. Particularly those who have read or heard a lot of fairy-tales such as Alice in Wonderland, Three Bears and a baby or even those who have played the Super Mario Brothers video game.
You have probably seen mushrooms making someone bigger or acting as a shield against some dangerous monster. These aren’t just popular culture references, they are actually symbolic representations of the actual health benefits of mushrooms. They truly can make you bigger and protect you against diseases and infections, as they are full of proteins, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antibiotics and antioxidants.
Mushrooms are edible fungi with various scientific names, but the family name is “Agaricus”, and then there are many secondary names for different species. They are essentially Saprophytes, the organisms (plants without chlorophyll) which thrive by extracting nutrients from dead and decaying plant and animal matter. They vary greatly in their color, texture, shape and properties.
There are approximately 140,000 species of mushroom-forming fungi in the world, but science is only familiar with about 10%, while only 100 species or so are being studied for their potential health benefits and medicinal applications. Some of the most well-known benefits of mushrooms are explained below.
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 carbohydrates2. 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 system2.
Riboflavin helps maintain healthy red blood cells2.
Niacin promotes healthy skin and makes sure the digestive and nervous systems function properly2.
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 aging2. It also has been found to be important for the immune system and fertility in men3. 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 serving4. 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 mushrooms5.
Copper helps make red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. Copper also helps keep bones and nerves healthy2.
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 Value4.
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 effective6.
Read research about the nutrient composition of mushrooms here.
Mushrooms and Cancer
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.
Read more about research that investigates mushrooms and cancer here.
Mushroom 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 well2. In addition, mushrooms provide ergothioneine, a naturally occurring antioxidant that may help protect the body’s cells.
Mushrooms and Weight Management
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 meal7.
Sodium and Umami in Mushrooms
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.8 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.
Mushrooms and Vitamin D
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.
Mushrooms Are Gluten Free
Often grouped with vegetables, mushrooms provide many of the nutritional attributes of produce, as well as attributes more commonly found in meat, beans or grains4. 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 grains4,9.
Like all fruits and vegetables, mushrooms are naturally gluten free, and make a delicious and nutritious addition to a gluten-free diet.
A Few Words of Caution: On a much more serious note, mushrooms can be very dangerous! Most species of mushrooms are not edible, are highly poisonous and look strikingly similar to their edible counterparts. Don’t ever try picking mushrooms for consumption from the woods unless you have been trained to identify them very well. Mushrooms have the unique ability to absorb the material that they grow on, either good or bad. This quality is what gives mushrooms so much of their beneficial power, but also their dangerous aspects. Many mushrooms, when picked in the wild, contain heavy metals, which can be very toxic, as well as air and water pollutants.
Also, do not trust any unknown vendors when you buy mushrooms. Always trust sealed products from reputable companies or those which you have grown yourself under controlled conditions after buying their seeds (called spawns) from a trusted source. A single poisonous mushroom among others in a dish can threaten a large amount of people’s health, resulting in comas, severe poison symptoms, nausea, vomiting, convulsions, cramps, insanity. Many species can even be fatal if ingested. Always avoid eating discolored mushrooms or those which are different in color than the typically accepted color of their species.
Photo Gallery of Mushroom: