September is National Mushroom Month, a great time to learn about all things mushroom: their folklore, history, health benefits and, of course, nutrition.
Legend has it that Egyptian pharaohs believed mushrooms led to immortality and proclaimed them the food of royalty. Other cultures believed mushrooms produced super-human strength and help in finding lost objects.
It is believed the early civilizations of Egypt, Greece, Rome, Mexico and China all viewed mushrooms as a delicacy and valued their medicinal worth. Historically a part of traditional Chinese medicine, mushrooms have been used to treat influenza, cancer, high blood pressure and bronchial inflammation. In a variety of cultures, other recorded uses include the treatment of insomnia, indigestion, bleeding and fatigue as well as prevention of diabetes, heart disease and aging-related maladies.
How credible are these applications? Preliminary new data shows protective effects of mushrooms on mild cognitive impairment, making them a target of ongoing research into delaying the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A study of young women showed greater mushroom intake was related to lower breast cancer risk, although it did not show cause and effect. While few other studies have looked at whole mushroom consumption in humans, mushroom extracts have proven beneficial in improving the immune system’s ability to fight tumors, viruses and bacteria. They have also demonstrated improved survival of patients with colorectal cancer.
Beyond those studies, we can extrapolate mushrooms’ health benefits from their nutritional profile. Edible mushrooms are a unique food, belonging to the fungi kingdom but generally considered a vegetable. They are low in calories while rich in vitamins, minerals and protein; one serving (about 3 button mushrooms), contains 3 grams of protein and a generous supply of riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin (B vitamins), selenium, copper and phosphorus. Especially interesting is their insoluble fiber, chitin, which has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Another potential benefit is weight management. In a study that substituted mushrooms for beef in a test lunch, energy intake was significantly lower during both the mushroom lunch and throughout that entire day, compared to days when beef was eaten. Opinions of taste, appetite and satisfaction were the same on all days, suggesting exchanging meat for mushrooms may assist with weight loss as a result of lowered calorie consumption.
Mushrooms are also high in glutamate, which increases sensory appeal by providing the fifth flavor of food, umami. Umami enhances our taste response to food, reducing bitterness and improving the perception of low-sodium products, implying mushrooms may help enhance the flavor and acceptability of a reduced sodium diet.
The mushrooms typically studied include white button, crimini, portabella, maitake, shiitake and enoki. Chanterelle, morel, oyster and porcini are other common edible mushrooms that can be enjoyed in a variety of cuisines.
No doubt you’ve heard the axiom: eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Getting a variety of colors usually means getting a variety of vitamins and minerals, but mushrooms are an exception, providing an array of nutrients in an assortment of shapes and sizes. Try them raw or cooked, and consider inviting them to your next tailgate or potluck.
Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, FAND, is an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and director of the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center.
For delicious recipes, nutrition tips, and to find cooking and nutrition classes, go to the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center website. More great info also available at the College of Health and Human Sciences Pinterest board.