Most of the people I know have very strong feelings about mushrooms—they either love them or hate them. One of the beauties of mushrooms is that they usually take on the flavor of whatever they are cooked with. If it’s garlic and olive oil, that’s what they taste like. If they’re in a spicy Asian stir fry, they take on those flavors. One thing is certain — mushrooms are healthy little powerhouses of immunity boosters, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Rich in B vitamins such as riboflavin, folate, thiamine, pantothenic acid, and niacin, they are also the only vegan, non-fortified dietary source of vitamin D. Mushrooms also provide several minerals that may be difficult to obtain in the diet, such as selenium, potassium, copper, iron, and phosphorus. With just 45 calories per cup, you can afford to indulge in these versatile fungi. I prefer fresh mushrooms and use organic ones whenever I can find them.
At the Natural Products Expo in Anaheim back in March, I attended a presentation by Paul Stamets, the noted mycologist (mushroom and fungi expert). He is passionate about mushrooms because he sees them as, “improving the health of the population and the planet using natural means.” The premise of his very interesting book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World is that the soil contains vast networks of mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus. It’s all pretty technical, but basically through the mycelium, a fungus absorbs nutrients from its environment in a two-stage process: First, by secreting enzymes onto a food source, such as a fallen tree or other dead plants, which breaks it down. Then, the resulting molecules and nutrients are absorbed into the mycelium and enrich the soil.
According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, “As a defense against bacterial invasion, fungi have developed strong antibiotics, which also happen to be effective for us humans. Penicillin, streptomycin, and tetracycline all come from fungal extracts.” Mushrooms, which thrive on decaying organic material, are able to absorb nutrients and safely eliminate toxins.
Here’s what else mushrooms can do for us:
- Improve immune system function – Mushrooms are rich in protein, fiber, vitamin C, B vitamins, calcium, and minerals. There are about 50 species of medicinal mushrooms that are so rich in antioxidants they can do everything from boost your immune function to lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, and allergies. The alpha and beta glucan molecules present in mushrooms play a major role in their beneficial effects.
- Increase vitamin D levels – Consuming dried white button mushroom extract was found to be as effective as taking supplemental vitamin D2 or D3. Interestingly, Stamets’ book cites a study in which shitake mushroomsincreased in vitamin D from 110 IUs when they were dried indoors to 21,400 IUs when they were dried in the sunlight. D vitamins are essential for the body to absorb calcium and maintain bone health.
- Help weight loss – Mushrooms increase enzymes with antioxidant activity. Studies show they can be metabolic enhancers, stimulating the breakdown of sugar in blood cells. Replacing a beef patty with a hearty Portobello mushroom eliminates over 100 calories.
Not all edible mushrooms are good to eat. Some such as turkey tail or maitake (hen of the woods) are highly beneficial, but only available as dietary supplements. Our FoodTrients supplement authority, Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, LDN, is working on an article about mushroom supplements as we speak. Meanwhile, here are a number of delicious mushroom varieties that you can find fresh in the produce section of your local supermarket or online in dried form:
- Shiitake – One of most widely cultivated and most tasty. Contains a chemical called lentinan, approved as an injectable drug in Japan to help prevent damage from anti-cancer drugs. Helps increase activity of T-cells which stimulates the immune system. The theory is that, because they are fungus, they trick the immune system into thinking it’s under attack. Japanese studies suggest consumption of shiitakes lowers blood cholesterol by 45% due to an ingredient called eritadenine. These are commonly found in supermarket produce departments.
- Reishi – In traditional Chinese medicine, reishi mushrooms are considered to have many health and curative properties. The Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center site suggests that reishi extract stimulates the immune system. The site also states that there have been clinical studies indicating that it increases antioxidant capacity and enhances immune responses in advanced-stage cancer patients. Reishis are natural stress reducers—helpful to those under physical and emotional stress. You can find them online in dried form.
- Cremini – These are the common white button mushrooms. According to Regina Wilshire, N.D., a 5 oz. serving contains 50% of RDA for cancer-fighting trace mineral selenium, 40% of RDA riboflavin, 35% of copper, 30% of niacin, 20-25% of pantothenic acid, phosphorous, zinc, plus 10-15% of manganese and thiamin. These are readily available fresh in stores.
- Portobello – These are the mature cremini mushrooms. They have a meaty texture and an intense, earthy flavor. They are low in calories and high in pantothenic acid, niacin, folate, thiamin and B vitamins, which are important for a healthy metabolism, skin, liver and hair. Portobellos are in most produce departments.
Turkey Meatballs with Parsley and Mushroom Gravy
The chlorophyll in fresh parsley gives this herb its antioxidant power, while vitamin C makes it a good anti-inflammatory. Parsley also contains folic acid, which is great for protecting your heart. I use a half cup of fresh parsley in these delicious meatballs, then sprinkle more on top when plating. The mushrooms in the gravy provide B vitamins, riboflavin and essential trace minerals.
1 lb. ground turkey
1/4 cup chopped onion
2 medium eggs
Sea salt and ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup chopped parsley
2 Tbs. seasoned breadcrumbs
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup chopped cremini or white button mushrooms
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 can (10.75 oz.) condensed cream of mushroom soup
3/4 cup low-fat milk
2 Tbs. chopped parsley
1 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
Pinch of ground pepper
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. To make the meatballs, combine the first six ingredients in a large bowl. With your hands, shape mixture into about 24 medium-sized meatballs.
3. Heat the oil in a cast-iron skillet or grill pan over medium-high heat. Add meatballs and fry until brown on all sides, about 2 minutes per side.
4. Place meatballs in a shallow baking dish. Bake at 400 degrees until cooked through, about 10 minutes.
5. To make the mushroom gravy, sauté the mushrooms in 2 Tbsp. olive oil until just tender, about 5 minutes. Combine the cream of mushroom soup, milk, parsley, Worcestershire sauce, and pepper in a medium saucepan. Add sautéed mushrooms. Cook over medium heat until heated through, about 7-10 minutes.