Mushroom Health Benefits: The Nutrients and Protein in Mushrooms
Mushrooms have been consumed, used for medicinal purposes, and — for those deadly, wild mushroom varieties — completely avoided for centuries. Mushrooms were reportedly used in religious ceremonies in ancient Mexico, and rumor has it the ancient Egyption pharaohs hailed mushrooms as a “royal food” (1).
Today, there are over 2,000 edible varieties of mushrooms available, although only a handful have become staples in a North American diet (2). In the United States alone, nearly one million pounds of mushrooms are produced each year, to be enjoyed in various cuisines or used for their healing properties. Sought-after, culinary gems — like morels and truffles, which can run up to $30 a pound — are coveted by restaurateurs and home chefs alike, both for their rarity and flavor.
While you might drool over some mushroom varieties, their healing properties might be what’s most impressive. And unlike thousands of years ago, now we have the science to back it up.
Start With the Basics: What Nutrients Are Found in Mushrooms?
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty health benefits of mushrooms (of which there are many!), let’s start with the basics. All mushroom varieties, no matter if you’re tossing them into a stir-fry or layering them atop a pizza, have some degree of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Mushrooms are a good source of vitamin D, and contain several B vitamins. They’re also an excellent source of selenium, shown to help boost the immune system and promote healthy cells (3).
Are Mushrooms a Good Protein Source?
Finally, all mushrooms contain some protein and fiber. One cup of white mushrooms, for example, contains 2 grams of protein and almost 1 gram of dietary fiber (3). While these numbers might seem low on the surface, don’t take them at face value. We’re talking about a low-calorie food, here — just 15 calories per cup — which is far less than animal protein or whole grains. In terms of nutrient density (the amount of nutrients for the calories you get from a particular food), mushrooms do fairly well.
If you are a vegan or vegetarian and want to increase your protein intake, mushrooms (or mushroom protein) might be a suitable option. Mushrooms are considered a protein-rich vegetable, because it is a complete protein source. In a study looking at the protein content of mushroom protein, all 17 essential amino acids were found. And all except methionine and phenylalanine were found in reasonably high concentrations (4).
5 Incredible (and Surprising) Health Benefits of Mushrooms
The potential health benefits of mushrooms extend far beyond what you read on their nutrition labels. In fact, it’s believed that 50% of the cultivated, edible mushrooms available contain functional, or medicinal properties (5). Shiitake, oyster, portobello, maitake, and enokitake mushrooms are just a few of the many mushrooms shown to have therapeutic health effects. Below, we’ll explore each one of these further.
They Might Fight Cancer
In 2010, a study explored if mushrooms had the ability to slow tumor growth and fight cancer cell reproduction. In the study, five commonly consumed mushrooms (maitake, crimini, oyster, portabella, and white button) were tested to see their effect on women diagnosed with breast cancer. The result? The various mushrooms significantly “suppressed” the growth and reproduction of cancer cells (6).
They Boost the Immune System
Both shiitake and white button mushrooms have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties, helping to boost immune function. In a study done on over 50 healthy men and women for four weeks, consuming 5–10 grams of shiitake mushrooms daily helped improve immunity (as suggested by changes in their cells) and lower inflammation (7).
In various studies, supplementing with white button mushrooms has been shown to boost the immune system. In fact, supplementing with mushrooms helped prevent against various viral infections, even for influenza and a salmonella infection, in animal studies (8)(9).
They Might Improve Heart Health
Mushrooms contain fibers chitin and beta-glucan, which have been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure — two markers of heart disease. In a six-week animal study performed in 2012, it was found that eating mushrooms daily not only resulted in weight loss, but significantly reduced cholesterol levels (10).
These results were similar to those of other studies, which found that certain mushroom varieties, particularly oyster mushrooms, significantly reduced the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques, thereby improving lipid levels (11).
They Could Slow Down the Aging Process
Mushrooms contain various antioxidants, helping to reduce free radicals in the body. But two powerful antioxidants in particular, ergothioneine and glutathione, might help you look (and feel) younger, longer. These two antioxidants have been praised for their ability to reduce the risk of certain diseases and the onset of neurological disorders. However, they’re now being used as an ingredient in anti-aging drugs (12).
The amount of ergothioneine and glutathione varies widely depending upon the variety of mushroom you’re consuming (13). However, porcini — by far — seems to have the highest traces of these antioxidants (14).
Cook Your Mushrooms to Get the Most Health Benefits
To get the most of these beneficial effects you simply need to consume more mushrooms, right? Well, not quite.
You should cook mushrooms to get the greatest benefits from them. It’s recommended to grill or microwave mushrooms, but you can also try frying or broiling them, to retain the maximum amount of nutrients (15).
Raw mushrooms contain tough cell walls, which could prevent nutrient absorption. More importantly, some edible mushroom varieties contain small traces of toxins that are destroyed in the cooking process (16).
Want to Get More Mushrooms in Your Diet?
Mushrooms are an excellent component of any healthy eating plan, containing solid amounts of B vitamins, vitamin D, and dietary fiber. They also make a great plant-based protein source.
However, medicinal mushrooms contain health benefits that extend far beyond their nutritional value. Even mushrooms you can find at the grocery store — like shiitake, white mushrooms, and oyster mushrooms — can help reduce or prevent high blood pressure, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Mushrooms should almost always be consumed cooked. Try adding grilled mushrooms to sandwiches and wraps, using them as pizza toppings, or adding them to salads. Or, for those of you who might not be a mushroom fan, try hiding them! All Kettle & Fire bone broths contain mushrooms, allowing you to enjoy these health benefits in a tasty way.
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