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Mighty Mushrooms

By Janet Helm, MS, RD

mushrooms

No one seems to be neutral about mushrooms. You either love ‘em or hate ‘em. I’m officially on team mushroom. No doubt, I’m fervently fond of fungi, and now there are a lot of new reasons why you should be a mycophile too.

Scientists are unearthing a variety of potential benefits linked to mushrooms – from boosting our immune system and fighting infections to protecting against heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Many of the medicinal qualities of mushrooms are traced to beta glucans – the same type of fiber that gives oatmeal its cholesterol-lowering abilities. Mushrooms are also packed with some surprising levels of nutrients, including B vitamins and the minerals selenium, potassium, and copper.

Some of the latest news about mushrooms involves vitamin D. Researchers found that bringing mushrooms out of the dark and exposing them to ultraviolet light causes their vitamin D content to soar, making them an unlikely but significant source of this important bone-building, immune-enhancing nutrient.

Mushrooms are also packed with antioxidants – even more than many deeply hued vegetables, including carrots and tomatoes. When it comes to one particular antioxidant, mushrooms are at the top of the heap. Penn State researchers found that mushrooms are the richest source of ergothioneine. Mushrooms contain 12 times the levels found in wheat germ – once thought to be the highest natural source of ergothioneine.

Other studies suggest mushrooms can help with weight management. That’s not surprising since mushrooms are about 90% water and contain few calories and virtually no fat. Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center in Baltimore, conducted a study that used mushrooms as a meat substitute. Participants in the study saved 350 to 400 calories a day by using sliced, diced, or ground up mushrooms in place of meat in lasagna, chili and other entrees.

The Mushroom Trend

Beyond the renewed attention by the medical community, mushrooms are becoming culinary stars– no longer relegated to the supporting cast in a salad or on a slice of pizza.

These fragrant, woodsy fungi are now featured front and center on restaurant menus, from grilled portabella “steaks” and baby bella mushroom wraps to porcini-laden pastas, warm ragouts spiked with morels, and shitake risottos. Supermarkets now stock a burgeoning array of pre-washed, pre-sliced fresh mushrooms and myriad packages of exotic dried mushrooms – perhaps the greatest evidence of America’s new love affair with mushrooms.

If you don’t think you like mushrooms, it’s worth giving them another chance. Try grilling or sautéing mushrooms in a little olive oil and garlic instead of eating them raw – you might not be as turned off by the texture. Or grill a meaty portabella mushroom cap to use in place of a burger. These flavorful ‘shrooms are a good place to start if you haven’t been a mushroom fan in the past.

What are your favorite ways to enjoy mushrooms? Share your thoughts and recipes in the comments below or in our Food and Cooking community.

Learn More

Mushrooms: What’s Edible, Medicinal, and Psychadelic

Video: Which Mushrooms Boost Immunity?

Photo: iStockphoto

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