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 they were the handiwork of evil spirits. On the other hand, in ancient Egypt, mushrooms were thought to bestow the eater with immortality. While in China, they have been used medicinally for more than 6,000 years to improve health.
In the modern Western world, mushrooms lost their dramatic public image. Cultivation neutralized any danger of mushroom toxicity or belief in “dark forces.” Until recently, Western science considered them to be void of any particular nutritional or therapeutic value. Fungus rather than vegetable, they seemed to pale in comparison to their more vibrant, antioxidant-rich salad mates like tomatoes and carrots. Composed of 90% water and weighing in at only 18 calories per cup, no wonder scientists didn’t believe in the health benefits of these fungi.
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. They are rich in beta glucans, the type of fiber that gives oatmeal its cholesterol-lowering power. An excellent source of potassium — one medium portabella has more potassium than a banana or glass of orange juice. Button mushrooms may also 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. For centuries they 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, as a stimulant for the immune system. Lentinan is more effective than prescription drugs in fighting viruses. It even shows potential to improve the immune systems of those infected with HIV. Japan now uses this compound 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. They may not guarantee immortality as the Egyptians believed, but they may preserve and provide many health benefits. The enzymes, anti-microbial compounds, and natural antibiotics contained within mushrooms help them survive and fight off potential invaders. By adding them to our diet, they can do the same for us. After all, the miraculous antibiotic penicillin derived from fungus. Finally, mushrooms are getting their due. Mycophiles (mushroom lovers) rejoice!