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Environmental Nutrition: The wide world of mushrooms

Kaley Todd, M.S., R.D.N. on

Mushrooms have been consumed and used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks believed mushrooms provided strength for warriors in battle, and the Romans perceived them as “food of the Gods.” For centuries, the Chinese culture has treasured mushrooms as a health food, labeling them as an “elixir of life.” Traditional Chinese medicine continues to highly value mushrooms, believing they offer numerous health benefits and play a role in preventing and treating various ailments.

Mushrooms are often placed in the vegetable category for dietary recommendations. However, they are actually neither a plant nor animal, but belong to the fungal kingdom. One key difference that distinguishes fungi from plants and animals is that fungi lack chlorophyll and exist on decaying material.

More than 2,000 varieties of mushrooms are edible, but the most common variety grown in the U.S.is white button, followed by crimini, portabellas, enoki, oyster, maitake and shiitake. Mushrooms grow in nearly every state, but Pennsylvania accounts for approximately 60% of the total mushroom yield.

Nutritional profile

Mushrooms have a unique nutritional profile. Key nutrients found in mushrooms include: B vitamins, selenium, copper, potassium, betaglucans and the powerful antioxidants glutathione and ergothioneine. Plant- Powered Dietitian Sharon Palmer, M.S.F.S., R.D.N., notes that “the selenium found in mushrooms is unique in produce — the main intake of this antioxidant nutrient is most often from meats, dairies, and whole grains.”

In addition, the ability to produce vitamin D when exposed to the sun is also a distinctive attribute of mushrooms. “They can create vitamin D in a similar way humans can with sun exposure,” says Palmer. Consumers can increase the vitamin D in mushrooms by exposing them to sunlight prior to eating. A preliminary trial demonstrated that vitamin D in mushrooms can be increased by at least 25% of the Daily Reference Intake by exposure to sunlight for as little as 15 minutes on a clear or partly cloudy day.

 

Mushrooms also provide fiber and protein, and can be particularly useful for vegetarian diets, considering they provide all the essential amino acids and have higher protein content than most vegetables. Mushrooms are naturally low in fat, calories, and sodium, and do not contain cholesterol, sugars or gluten.

Health properties

Although researchers are uncovering the benefits of mushrooms, additional studies are needed to understand their health properties and how they apply to different species. Mushrooms are reported to have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular- protective, antidiabetic and other properties. According to Palmer, “mushrooms contain special nutrients, as well as bacteria, yeasts and molds that appear to have health potential. Studies show that mushrooms are linked to anticancer activity, antioxidant action, and immune-enhancing benefits. They have also been shown to have benefits for blood lipids and glucose.”

Mushrooms and aging

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