Mushrooms tend to divide opinion – generally speaking, you either love them or hate them. One thing that’s less contentious, however, is their healthful properties. Whatever the shape, size, species and colour, mushrooms are rightly credited as being one of the most nutritious foods available to us.
The word “mushroom” derives from the French word for fungi, and it was a French gardener who is said to have “discovered” mushrooms growing on his growth fertiliser in 1650. However, cave paintings throughout North Africa dating back 7,000 years depicted mushrooms, so they’ve been with us a lot longer.
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive on the topic of mushrooms. What makes them so healthy, how should we cook them to preserve their nutrients, which species are especially beneficial?
The Nutritional Properties of Mushrooms
Mushrooms are spore-bearing, umbrella-shaped extrusions of macrofungi which can be wild-harvested or cultivated in controlled indoor environments. They thrive in dark, cool, moist conditions.
Flavourful and meaty, these sporophores have certain distinctions from species to species, the most important of which is that some are edible and some are not.
Those which are inedible or poisonous are typically referred to as toadstools.
Some mushrooms are marvellously hardy, with the ability to live for hundreds of years. For the purposes of this section, we will focus on the general nutritional profile of mushrooms, since that does not tend to differ a great deal between edible varieties.
A single cup of mushrooms provides approximately 21 calories, 3g of protein, 3g of carbohydrates and virtually no fat or cholesterol.
Where they excel is in their extensive nutrient content, since mushrooms have around 15 vitamins and minerals including vitamin D and various B vitamins. They’re also rich in fibre, essential amino acids, glutathione, anti-inflammatory antioxidants like selenium and ergothioneine, and have antimicrobial, cytotoxic compounds.
Because of their rich nutrition and pharmacological profile, mushrooms are often dubbed “functional foods” and are believed to have great anti-ageing potential.
The Best Way of Cooking Mushrooms
So, how should you cook mushrooms to preserve their nutrient content? Should we sauté, grill, bake, broil, roast, boil, microwave?
Believe it or not, research by the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition suggests the latter, since exposure to shorter cooking times preserves more nutrients.
Grilling also appeared to be preferable to frying and boiling, which resulted in a sharp decrease of antioxidants.
Prior to eating, it’s a good idea to wash and clean mushrooms to get rid of soil and grit. Certain species of raw mushrooms also contain modest quantities of toxins, including a possible carcinogenic compound which is destroyed through cooking.
The heavy metal content of mushrooms also differs from species to species, with chanterelles the worst offenders.
The Health Benefits of Mushrooms
Like many other so-called functional foods, mushrooms are known for their ability to help with many aspects of health. Let’s look at some of the main health conditions associated with mushrooms.
The effect of mushrooms on cognitive health is well-documented. A recent study from the University of Singapore, for instance, found that seniors who consumed more than two standard portions of mushrooms every week enjoyed a 50% reduced risk of experiencing mild cognitive impairment.
Portions were defined as three quarters of a cup of cooked mushrooms.
Interestingly, researchers learned that even one small portion could be helpful in this regard. The study looked at 600 seniors over a six-year period, so it was not a small sample.
The mushrooms used in the study comprised oyster, shiitake, white button and golden, plus dried and canned mushrooms.
The 2019 research followed on from 2016 trials which determined that citizens with mild cognitive impairment tended to have low plasma levels of ergothioneine, which is found abundantly in mushrooms – particularly cremini and portobello.
Researchers also speculated that other bioactive compounds (such as glutathione) in mushrooms may protect the brain from neurodegeneration by hampering production of beta amyloid and phosphorylated tau, and acetylcholinesterase.
Mushrooms – especially those which are wild-harvested – are rich in polysaccharides which increase the enzyme superoxide dismutase (SOD). And SOD, for its part, is particularly useful at tamping down inflammation and easing pain associated with autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
One study found that lion’s mane mushrooms could heal damage nerves, which are common in MS patients. Lion’s mane can also stimulate nerve growth.
Related: Natural Remedies for Arthritis Pain
Gut Health & Type 2 Diabetes
According to a 2018 Penn State study, “Eating white button mushrooms can create subtle shifts in the microbial community in the gut, which could improve the regulation of glucose in the liver.”
Naturally, glucose management is one of the cornerstones of treatment for type 2 diabetes. Diabetes occurs when there is insufficient insulin or the insulin made by the body is ineffective, causing high blood glucose levels.
Researchers noted that mushrooms act as a prebiotic, nourishing beneficial native gut bacteria with attendant positive effects.
Hallucinogenic mushrooms contain psilocybin and other compounds that produce psychological and perceptual effects. Evidence also shows reduced depression symptoms after weeks of treatment.
For the purposes of this article, we’re not going to go into these benefits extensively. Mainly because we might just get in trouble.
You can take a look at Imperial College London’s work on this topic here.
The results of a decades-long cohort study of 36,000 Japanese men indicated an association between mushroom intake and a lower risk of prostate cancer. Again, we have to consider this information very deeply as the sample size is considerable. The findings were published in 2019, in the International Journal of Cancer.
Subjects who ate mushrooms once or twice a week benefitted from an 8% lower risk of developing prostate cancer, versus those who ate mushrooms less than once a week. People who ate mushrooms three or more times each week, meanwhile, enjoyed a 17% reduced risk versus subjects who ate them less than once a week.
Several components of mushrooms have been shown to strengthen the immune system, not least polysaccharides like beta-glucans, zinc and vitamin D.
One study by the University of Florida indicated improved immunity (in the form of better-functioning gamma delta T-cells and less inflammatory proteins) in those who ate a single shiitake mushroom every day for four weeks.
Needless to say, shiitake isn’t the only species associated with immune health: all edible mushrooms can subtly level up the immune system, though the best species appear to be reishi, chaga, himematsutake, maitake, cordyceps and turkey tail.
The Best Types of Mushroom for Your Health
Porcini, shiitake, portobello, oyster; chestnut, reishi, chanterelle, shimeji; crimini, enoki, maitake, white button: all species of edible mushroom, all distinctly different.
For example, white button mushrooms must be grown on composted manure while shiitakes employ wood or hardwood sawdust.
There is no clear consensus on which type of mushroom is best. As mentioned, they are broadly nutritionally similar with some (usually modest) differences.
Cremini and portobello benefit from the highest quantity of amino acid ergothioneine, while the likes of shiitake are especially high in vitamin D and have been used medicinally for centuries throughout Asia.
Lion’s mane mushroom, meanwhile, appears to be one of the best natural remedies for managing multiple sclerosis.
Ultimately, it’s probably a good idea to eat a diverse range of mushrooms. Studies show that the immune system enjoys greater stimulation from variety, since a wider range of polysaccharides will be present.
So, if you’re adding mushrooms to your plate a few times a week, choose different species every time.
Alternatively, save yourself the hassle by using Fermented Mushroom Powder. This supplement combines four organically-grown, premier-quality mushroom species: reishi, shiitake, maitake and himematsutake. Uniquely, the mushrooms have been probiotic-fermented to improve absorbability, particularly of the beneficial polysaccharides. Each tub supplies 30 servings.
Thanks to its relatively neutral flavour, the powder can be added to a variety of dishes.
Mushrooms are incredibly easy to incorporate in your diet: they can be added to stir fries, salads, stews, soups and other foods not beginning with S (like curries!). They can be sliced and cooked inside omelettes and quiches, mixed with herbs and spices, stuffed with other ingredients (mushroom-stuffed crab meat is delicious), included in sandwiches – the options are endless.
Of course, you don’t have to go wild. Evidence suggests that even a moderate increase in mushroom consumption can engender appreciable benefits. In addition to their healthful properties, mushrooms add flavour and texture to meals.
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Grilling mushrooms is preferable to frying and boiling, which results in a sharp decrease of antioxidants.