According to research, people have included mushrooms in their diet since the Stone Age. That's why mushrooms are part of the history and culture of peoples around the world. There is even a whole science that studies the relationship between humans and mushrooms, the so-called "ethnomycology".
Despite the fact that mushrooms have been used medicinally in the East for centuries, there are still many unknown aspects regarding their medicinal properties. However, in the US they have become extremely popular in recent years, where coffee, powders and pills with mushroom extract are also commercially available.
Rich in nutrients
Nutritionally, mushrooms belong to the category of vegetables. Like most vegetables, they are low in calories and fat and contain protein.
However, mushrooms differ from most vegetables because they are also classified as fungi. This means they contain a lot of nutrients. Some of them are:
Fiber : Most of the carbohydrates in mushrooms are fiber. This type of fiber helps manage our weight and regulate blood glucose levels.
Potassium : Potassium is an important nutrient as it helps the body maintain its fluid balance. White mushrooms are rich in potassium.
Selenium : Selenium is an antioxidant and plays an important role in thyroid function, while strengthening our immune system. Edible boletus and Oregon shield mushrooms are rich in selenium.
Vitamin D : Mushrooms are the only plant-based food that contains vitamin D. Vitamin D helps stimulate the immune system and the proper absorption of potassium and phosphorus, which reduce the risk of certain types of cancer and strengthen bones.
Enzymes in mushrooms are called ergosterols, which when exposed to the sun's UV rays produce vitamin D. Agaric mushrooms and portobello mushrooms are two types of mushrooms that contain high levels of ergosterols.
It should be remembered that vitamin D is only available in mushrooms that grow outside in the wild and are exposed to the sun or light in general.
Antioxidants: Specifically the antioxidant ergothioneine. Mushrooms are the only food that contains antioxidants, which research has shown may reduce the risk of certain age-related diseases such as Parkinson's. Agaric white mushrooms and the Edible Bolitis mushroom contain high levels of ergothioneine.
They help with digestion, diabetes and weight management
Mushrooms contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber is absorbed into water and lowers cholesterol levels – including low-density lipoprotein (or LDL), which is considered “bad” cholesterol. In contrast, insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water but helps food pass through the digestive system. Both types are important for our health.
Mushrooms rich in vegetable fiber are agaric mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, chanterelle mushrooms, castamanita mushrooms and pleurotus oyster mushrooms. The latter, in particular, have been shown to help diabetes by reducing blood glucose and cholesterol levels.
Mushrooms also help to manage our body weight. Some mushrooms, such as portobello, have a meaty flavor offering a vegetarian and low-calorie alternative.
Also, mushrooms are about 90% water. This alone together with their fiber means that by eating mushrooms instead of high fat and high calorie foods we can maintain our weight while feeling the same pleasure and bloating.
A specific type of fiber in mushrooms is the polysaccharide 'beta-glucan'. It belongs to the soluble fibers associated with anti-cancer properties and properties that stimulate our immune system. Shiitake and pleurotus mushrooms contain high levels of this polysaccharide.
A 2010 study published in the journal "Nutrition and Cancer" showed that women who eat a lot of mushrooms are less likely to develop breast cancer. However, the researchers stress that more research needs to be done on the subject and that mushrooms are just one small potential factor to consider when talking about ways to prevent breast cancer.
For this research, more than 600 Korean women were examined who declared 103 different foods that they consumed in the last year. After taking into account other external factors, such as age and smoking, the researchers found that women with breast cancer reported, on average, that they had consumed fewer mushrooms—5.1 grams/day—than women without cancer and they ate 9.7 grams/day of mushrooms. The most common mushrooms they declared were white mushrooms and pleurotus.
It is worth adding that the "Trametis o poikilochromos" mushroom shows high concentrations of K-polysaccharides (Krestin or PSK), which have anti-inflammatory properties. This type of mushroom can help fight stomach cancer and recover immune cells from chemotherapy.
The way we cook mushrooms affects their nutrients
If we overcook our mushrooms we completely destroy their nutrients as we kill their bioactive compounds. So, cooking mushrooms needs attention.
A 2016 study in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition found that the best way to cook mushrooms to preserve their nutrients is to grill or microwave them. To reach this conclusion, the researchers compared the changes in the nutrients of mushrooms after boiling, frying, grilling and cooking them in the microwave oven. In the last two cases the mushrooms maintained the highest levels of antioxidants and the polysaccharide "beta glucans".