by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
Are Mushrooms a Vegetable?
A mushroom is neither a fruit nor a vegetable; technically mushrooms aren’t even plants. They are a special type of fungus—a notion that puts some people off. If you don’t mind the fungus part, though, mushrooms are a great addition to a healthy diet—not to mention totally delicious.
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Are Mushrooms Good for You?
There are many different types of edible mushrooms, everything from Japanese shiitake and enoki to Italian porcini to the common white button mushroom and the ever-popular portabella, also known as crimini. The various kinds of mushrooms all have different flavors, shapes, and textures—which is fun for culinary types. Although the nutrient profiles vary from type to type, most mushrooms are good sources of B vitamins, selenium, iron, and other minerals.
Mushrooms are also quite good at neutralizing free radicals, those renegade molecules that can otherwise get up to no good. In fact, you might be surprised (as I was) to learn that when it comes to antioxidant power, the plain old white button mushroom beats out even colorful veggies like green peppers, carrots, green beans, and tomatoes! Best of all, mushrooms contain antioxidants that are not deactivated or destroyed by cooking.
Do Mushrooms Fight Cancer?
In addition to being antioxidant powerhouses, mushrooms contain unique compounds that appear to boost your immune defense. For example, there has been a lot of interest in the cancer-fighting potential of various compounds and extracts of mushrooms. Mushroom extracts have been demonstrated to have anti-tumor activity—at least in test tubes. In humans, mushroom extracts have been shown to increase immune system activity.
Of course, we have yet to see a breakthrough cancer treatment derived from mushrooms, but many people believe that including mushrooms in their diet can help reduce their risk of cancer. It certainly can’t hurt. In fact, a few studies have found that people who eat more mushrooms have lower incidence of certain types of cancer, including breast cancer and stomach cancer.
The immune boosting compounds in mushrooms don’t appear to be affected by drying so you can get the same benefit from dried and powdered mushrooms as you do from fresh.
Mushrooms and Vitamin D
Some time ago, I wrote about vitamin D—how important this nutrient is and how common vitamin D deficiency is. (See What are the Benefits of Vitamin D?) Although mushrooms are not necessarily high in vitamin D, they have a very neat trick: When mushrooms are exposed to UV light, they produce vitamin D. Of course, your skin can do the same thing. But exposing your skin to UV rays can also cause skin cancer and premature aging of the skin. Why not let mushrooms take the heat for you?
You can boost the vitamin D content of mushrooms by putting them on a sunny windowsill or—if sunlight is not plentiful—a UVB bulb works, too. You’ll find UVB bulbs at pet stores that carry supplies for reptiles. Just put your mushrooms under the bulb for a couple of hours and then cook and eat them as usual. This method is so effective that it can even reverse a vitamin D deficiency.
Cooking With Mushrooms
If you’re interested in the potential health benefits of mushrooms, you can take them as dietary supplements—but why not exploit their culinary advantages and kill two birds with one stone? Almost all fresh mushrooms are delicious thinly sliced and sautéed over low heat in a bit of oil. You can cook them like that all by themselves or add in other vegetables too. The delicate enoki mushroom can be added raw to salads for a wonderful change of pace.
You can boost the vitamin D content of mushrooms by putting them on a sunny windowsill for a couple of hours.
Dried mushrooms can be reconstituted in warm water and then added to soups, casseroles, or stir-fries. Reserve the soaking water after removing the mushrooms. This mushroom “liquor” adds depth and richness to soups or stews—or use it as the liquid to cook rice or other grains.
I also just discovered these great dried mushroom and spice blends from a company called Fungus Among Us. You can sprinkle them over eggs, sandwich fillings, and cooked vegetables. They also make wonderful dry rubs for meat, tofu, or fish. And for a really fantastic dip, try combining 2 tablespoons of the Pacific Blend (organic oyster mushrooms smoked with thyme and cayenne) with 4 ounces of reduced fat cream cheese. Refrigerate over night to let the flavor develop. Serve with crackers or raw vegetables for a healthy, gourmet appetizer.
Should You Grow Your Own Mushrooms?
Wild mushrooms are a delicacy but unless you really know what you’re doing, I’d advise against gathering your own. Some wild mushrooms are highly toxic and I, personally, wouldn’t trust myself to tell the difference. But you can order kits to grow your own mushrooms. I haven’t tried it yet but I understand that mushroom farming is fun and easy. I bet it would be fun to do with kids. (See this article for more tips on Getting Kids to Eat Healthier.)
Fungi Perfecti is a good online source for mushroom kits and all kinds of other information about the medicinal and culinary properties of mushrooms.
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