Since ancient times, mushrooms have been the object of both reverence and dread. Their poisonous potential and rapid, circular pattern of growth led people in pre-modern Europe to believe that they were the handiwork of evil spirits. On the other hand, in ancient Egypt, mushrooms were thought to bestow the eater with immortality, while mushrooms have been used medicinally in China for more than 6,000 years.
In the modern Western world, mushrooms lost their dramatic public image. Cultivation neutralized any danger of mushroom toxicity or belief in “dark forces.” And until recently, Western science considered the widespread button mushroom to be void of any particular nutritional or therapeutic value. A fungus rather than a vegetable, mushrooms seemed to pale in comparison to their more vibrant-hued, antioxidant-rich salad mates like tomatoes and carrots. Composed of 90% water and weighing in at only 18 calories per cup, it’s no wonder scientists long thought them nutritionally inert.
New research, however, has elevated the common mushroom to superfood status. Button mushrooms—including white, cremini, and portabella—actually contain more antioxidants than some of the most colorful vegetables. They are the richest source of the powerful antioxidant L-ergothioneine, containing higher concentrations than the other two primary sources, chicken liver and wheat germ. Button mushrooms are also rich in vitamins and minerals that are essential for proper functioning of the antioxidant system, including selenium, copper and niacin. Moreover, these phytonutrients are well maintained even after mushrooms are cooked.
Protects Against Disease
Several studies have shown button mushrooms’ potential for protecting against certain cancers. In one study, an extract of white button mushrooms—equivalent to 3.5 oz of mushrooms per day—decreased cancer cell proliferation and tumor size. Research also suggests that compounds in button mushrooms prevent the excessive circulation of estrogen levels in the body, thereby reducing women’s risk of breast cancer. Men who consumed twice the recommended daily allowance of selenium, which button mushrooms boast in high amounts, cut their risk of prostate cancer by 65%.
The friendly fungi also show promise in mitigating cardiovascular disease. Button mushrooms are rich in beta glucans, the type of fiber that gives oatmeal its cholesterol-lowering power. Also an excellent source of potassium—one medium portabella has more potassium than a banana or glass of orange juice—button mushrooms may help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke and maintain normal heart rhythm. Mushrooms’ high concentration of copper aids in the production of red blood cells and the flexibility of blood vessels.
Immune System Stimulant
These findings build on the wisdom of ancient Chinese and Japanese practitioners, who for centuries used specialty mushrooms like shiitake, maitake and reishi for therapeutic purposes. Shiitakes have long been utilized to remedy colds and flu, yet only recently have scientists identified lentinan, a compound isolated from shiitakes, that has been shown to stimulate the immune system. Lentinan is more effective than prescription drugs in fighting viruses, even showing potential to improve the immune systems of those infected with HIV. This compound is now being used in Japan in conjunction with chemotherapy to treat cancer. Maitakes, a large fan-shaped mushroom, have also proven to be potent immune boosters and possible cancer-fighters as well.
As science tests the benefits of ever more varieties, mushrooms are shedding their stigma as nutritional nothings. Mushrooms may not guarantee immortality as the Egyptians believed, but they may preserve our health as well as they preserve their own. The enzymes, anti-microbial compounds and natural antibiotics contained within mushrooms help mushrooms survive and fight off potential invaders as they can do for us. After all, the miraculous antibiotic penicillin was derived from a fungus. Finally, mushrooms are getting their due. Mycophiles (mushroom lovers) rejoice!