FANTASTIC FUNGI

FOOD AS MEDICINE

Fantastic Fungi: Harnessing the Benefits of Mushrooms

Among the plethora of plant-based ingredients, there are six main categories or food groups. Fruits, vegetables, beans/legumes, grains, nuts/seeds, and one of the most underappreciated categories…mushrooms! In my experience, mushrooms can be a polarizing ingredient. Some people enjoy them, and others can’t stand them. Mushrooms are more than just toppings for pizzas or ingredients in soups. In various cultures, mushrooms were revered for their medicinal properties and esteemed as a source of sustenance. These unique fungi offer a treasure trove of goodness for our health. In this article, we’ll explore the many ways mushrooms can benefit our well-being. From boosting our immune system to supporting a healthy gut, mushrooms have much to offer. Let’s uncover the simple yet powerful health benefits that mushrooms bring to the table.

Decrease Cancer Risk

Mushrooms contain many beneficial compounds and antioxidants that help protect against cancer. One of these compounds is ergothioneine, a sulfur-containing amino acid with strong antioxidant activity and the ability to prevent or slow cellular damage.1 This amino acid is exclusively obtained from dietary sources and can be found in very high concentrations in mushrooms. A 2021 review of 17 studies showed that eating 18 grams of mushrooms daily (the equivalent of 2 medium mushrooms) may lower cancer risk by 45%!2 The exotic mushroom varieties that contain the highest amounts of ergothioneine include King oyster, maitake, oyster, and shiitake. More common varieties, including portabellas, criminis, and white button mushrooms, also contain modest amounts of this amino acid. Fortunately, the ergothioneine amounts stay the same even after cooking. 

Stimulate a healthy gut

Mushrooms are an important source of many compounds, including vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber. However, the main active ingredients in mushrooms are polysaccharides. Studies have shown that polysaccharides have a wealth of benefits, including anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-diabetes, and anti-obesity. In addition to these effects, polysaccharides have been shown to regulate the gut microbiome and stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria.3 Polysaccharides cannot be digested in our mouths or stomachs by saliva or other compounds and, as a result, are difficult for the body to absorb. Rather, digestive enzymes produced by the microbes in our gut are responsible for the breakdown of polysaccharides. Small molecules, including small-chain fatty acids, are created in the breakdown process. Beneficial bacteria in our gut can further utilize these molecules. Therefore, the breakdown of these substances requires the cooperation of gut microbes and can also stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria.4

Source of Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin required for many different processes within our body. It is found in a few foods and can be produced by our body when exposed to UV rays from the sun. Vitamin D promotes the absorption of calcium and phosphate, which is necessary to maintain and build strong bones.3 Vitamin D also plays a role in cell growth, neuromuscular and immune function, and glucose metabolism.4 The only type of produce that contains Vitamin D is mushrooms. Just as our bodies produce Vitamin D from exposure to sunlight, mushrooms do the same. Therefore, mushroom varieties that have been exposed to the most sunlight contain more Vitamin D. Fresh mushrooms, such as chanterelles and morels, have the most Vitamin D. Mushrooms grown in dark conditions, such as white button, portabella, cremini, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms contain significantly less. However, even after harvesting, mushrooms can continue to produce Vitamin D.6 Therefore, to increase the amount of Vitamin D, slice mushrooms and expose them to sunlight for 15 minutes before eating.

In conclusion, mushrooms are a versatile and nutrient-dense addition to any diet. Rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, mushrooms enhance the flavor and texture of dishes and contribute to overall well-being. Mushrooms can adapt to various cuisines and cooking methods. They can be used in pasta sauce, soup, stew, stir fry, tacos, and many other dishes. Embracing the consumption of mushrooms presents a simple yet profound way to nourish both body and mind. Incorporating mushrooms into one’s diet is not just a culinary choice but a decision to prioritize wellness, inviting individuals to savor the benefits of nature’s bounty in every bite.

Mushroom Stroganoff

Ingredients

½ yellow onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 lb mushrooms, sliced

1 ½ cups vegetable broth

2 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp dried thyme

½ cup plain, plant-based yogurt

2 Tbsp whole wheat flour

Salt and pepper, to taste

Fresh parsley, chopped

Instructions

  1. Sauté onion and garlic in a pan over medium heat until fragrant and soft, about 5 minutes. Then add mushrooms and cook until they release their juices and become soft, about 7 minutes.
  2. Stir in vegetable broth, soy sauce, and thyme. Stir to combine.
  3. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until liquid has reduced by a third, about 10 minutes.
  4. Mix in yogurt and flour.
  5. Continue to simmer until sauce thickens, another 3 minutes.
  6. Remove from heat. Garnish with parsley and season with salt and pepper.
  7. Serve over pasta or mashed potatoes, etc.

1 Kronemer, C. (2022, June 2). Ergothioneine: The Mushroom’s mighty amino acid. National Federation of Professional Trainers. https://www.nfpt.com/blog/ergothioneine-the-mushrooms-mighty-amino-acid

2 Ba, D. M., Ssentongo, P., Beelman, R. B., Muscat, J., Gao, X., & Richie, J. P. (2021). Higher mushroom consumption is associated with lower risk of cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Advances in Nutrition12(5), 1691–1704. https://doi.org/10.1093/advances/nmab015

3 7 health benefits of mushrooms. UCLA Health. (2022, January 24). https://www.uclahealth.org/news/7-health-benefits-of-mushrooms

4 Zhao J, Hu Y, Qian C, Hussain M, Liu S, Zhang A, He R, Sun P. The Interaction between Mushroom Polysaccharides and Gut Microbiota and Their Effect on Human Health: A Review. Biology (Basel). 2023 Jan 12;12(1):122. doi: 10.3390/biology12010122. PMID: 36671814; PMCID: PMC9856211.

5 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023, September 18). Office of dietary supplements – vitamin D. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/#:~:text=Together%20with%20calcium%2C%20vitamin%20D,metabolism%20%5B1%2D3%5D.

6 Mushrooms. The Nutrition Source. (2022, March 2). https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/mushrooms/

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