by Sasha Reddy
This article has been reviewed by Jeannie Versagli, RD, LDN. Jeannie is a Registered Dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a national professional organization, and is licensed in nutrition with the State of Delaware.
Mushrooms are a pretty “super” food, even if they’re not usually lumped in with kale, goji berries, or any of the other healthy hard-hitters we often hear about. From their history of medicinal use dating back thousands – yes, thousands – of years, to their remarkable antioxidant content, to their incredible agricultural sustainability and versatility, edible fungi are an often-overlooked but worthwhile addition to your diet. I met with registered dietitian, Jeannie Versagli, to discuss a few reasons why you should be eating more of them.
Due to their abundance and diversity of phenols, polysaccharides, and other therapeutic compounds, mushrooms excel in reducing inflammation. They contain tons of potassium, which can reduce blood pressure, and they’re chock-full of B vitamins, which are great heart health helpers. Jeannie also notes that commercially-grown mushrooms can increase their vitamin D content through UV light exposure, which can help boost immunity, decrease risk of heart disease, combat osteoporosis, and more. “Vitamin D is one of the largest vitamin deficiencies in the country,” she adds, emphasizing the importance of squeezing in this nutrient wherever you can.
But how can one food pack so much in such a small package? Jeannie explains that cooking causes mushrooms to lose some of their moisture content and shrink considerably. Hence, the nutrient density of mushrooms may actually increase as their volume decreases. It is worth noting, however, that different cooking methods affect mushrooms differently. Irene Roncero-Ramos, a post-doctoral researcher specializing in mushroom biology and nutrition, states that boiling and frying these little wonders is ill-advised, as these cause more nutrient loss and reduction in antioxidant activity than other cooking methods like grilling.
Lean, Mean, Antioxidant Machines
We’ve already touched on some of the antioxidant properties of mushrooms. Antioxidants are key components to reducing the number of free radicals in our bodies, thereby reducing inflammation and, more critically, cancer risk. “The more free radicals you have, the greater chance you have for inflammation,” Jeannie explains. “[Antioxidants] are like cleansers: they will go in and clean up the free radicals.” And while mushrooms may not hold a candle to blueberries in terms of antioxidants per serving, they do offer their own secret weapon: ergothioneine.
One cup of white button mushrooms contains:
- 33% DV of vitamin D
- ~33% DRI of vitamin B2
- ~24% DRI of vitamin B3
- 7% DRI of vitamin B1
- 8% DRI of vitamin B6
Source: healthline.com, livestrong.com
Ergothioneine is an amino acid that’s particularly potent as an antioxidant. This is because it protects our cells from inside the nuclei and mitochondria. A study from the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins found that cells lacking ergothioneine are more susceptible to oxidative stress. Ergothioneine can only be obtained through diet, and mushrooms far exceed the second best source of the stuff.
The Sustainability Factor
Mushrooms are among the most sustainable crops to cultivate. They are a low-energy, low-carbon crop, and they can be grown without sunlight at any time of year! The Mushroom Council reports that one acre of land can produce a million pounds of mushrooms. Additionally, producing one pound of mushrooms requires a mere 1.8 gallons of water. (According to the Water Footprint Network, it takes more than seven times the amount of water to grow a single tomato!)
Support Local Agriculture
We’re fortunate to live just a short drive from Kennett Square, the “Mushroom Capital of the World”. If you can believe it, more than half of the mushrooms consumed in the US are grown right in southern Chester County. Many of the massive mushroom-producing farms and farmers that now call Pennsylvania home are descendants of the Quakers who brought mushroom farming to the area and Italian immigrants that worked there in the late 1800s.
A Note on Mushroom Powders and Supplements
Mushroom coffee blends, drink additives, and concentrated supplements have spiked in popularity over the past two years as the perks of mushrooms have become more widely realized. In theory, these products should offer similar nutritional and medical benefits as their minimally-processed counterparts. However, Jeannie notes that they are not FDA-regulated, so the same benefits cannot be guaranteed. Ultimately, incorporating more good old-fashioned mushrooms into your meals is your best bet.