Mushrooms have been eaten and used medicinally for thousands of years, all around the world. Ancient Egyptians considered mushrooms to be plants of immortality and recognized them as a gift from the god Osiris. They valued mushrooms so highly, only the royals were allowed to consume them; commoners were forbidden to touch, much less eat them.
Based on ancient rock paintings and artifacts, some historians think that the use of magic mushrooms was alive and well in 9,000 BC among indigenous populations of North Africa. Furthermore, statues and art thought to represent mushrooms have been found in Mayan and Aztec ruins in Central America, establishing their ceremonial importance in the Americas over many thousands of years.
Today, mushrooms are growing in popularity worldwide due to their nutritional properties and versatile uses in the kitchen.
But what makes mushrooms so special? Are they good for the environment too?
What Are Mushrooms?
Although mushrooms are often lumped together with plants and vegetables, technically, they aren’t plants at all. Mushrooms are fungi, as are yeasts and molds. Fungi get their own kingdom, just like plants and animals.
There are two big differences between the two kingdoms. Plants make their own food via photosynthesis, while fungi take in their food from the outside, just as animals do.
What we call a mushroom is technically the fruiting body of a type of fungus. It’s made up of three parts: the stipe (stem), the pileus (cap), and the lamellae (gills).
Types of Edible Mushrooms
There are approximately 14,000 different species of mushroom, which includes edible, inedible, poisonous, and psychoactive. Out of the 300 edible species, 30 have been domesticated, and 10 are commonly grown commercially for consumers. The most common edible mushrooms are:
- White (includes white button, portobello, and cremini)
- Lion’s Mane
- Turkey Tail
- Hen of the Woods
You have likely seen many of these either at the grocery store or perhaps used in dishes on a restaurant menu.
Contrary to popular belief The common button mushroom is actually one of the most nutritious varieties out there. In fact, no matter what type of edible species you choose, mushrooms are tremendously nutritious, adding a wide range of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals to your diet.
108 g of sliced white mushrooms offers the following nutritional profile:
- Calories: 28
- Protein: 4 grams
- Total Carbohydrates: 4.4 grams
- Dietary Fiber: 2 grams
- Total Sugar: 0 grams
- Total Fat: 0.4 grams
- Riboflavin: 29% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Niacin: 22% of the DV
- Pantothenic Acid: 16% of the DV
- Folate: 5% of the DV
- Thiamin: 7% of the DV
- Selenium: 21% of the DV
- Copper: 16% of the DV
- Potassium: 12% of the DV
- Phosphorus: 11% of the DV
- Zinc: 4% of the DV
- Manganese: 3% of the DV
- Magnesium: 3% of the DV
- Iron: 2% of the DV
Interestingly, mushrooms share a DNA closest to humans. 100g serving also contains approximately 6% of your daily value, not much but nutritionally speaking they offer many more benefits.
Mushrooms are also a rich source of antioxidants that counteract the damaging effects of free radicals. And certain types of mushrooms have been studied for their medicinal benefits, including boosting your immune defense, supporting brain health, regulating blood sugar levels, and improving exercise performance.
6 Health Benefits of Mushrooms
Mushrooms are a rich source of compounds and complex substances with antimicrobial, antiviral, antitumor, antiallergic, immunomodulating, anti-inflammatory, antiatherogenic (against the formation of fatty deposits in the arteries), hypoglycemic, and hepatoprotective (good for the liver) properties. Some of the best-researched health benefits of incorporating them into your diet are detailed below.
- They are good for your immune system. In a 2011 study led by researchers at the University of Florida, participants who ate a 100g serving of shiitake mushrooms each day for four weeks had better-functioning gamma delta T-cells and reductions in inflammatory proteins. The researchers concluded that regular mushroom consumption could enhance the immune system while reducing excessive inflammation.
- They may have anti-aging properties. Mushrooms are high in antioxidants, compounds that fight the free radicals and oxidative stress that are responsible for damage to cells from diseases like cancer, coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and dementia. A study conducted by Penn State University in 2017 found that mushrooms are especially high in two antioxidants, ergothioneine and glutathione. And some species contain more than others. While the research is preliminary, Porcini mushrooms appear to be the best source of these two antioxidants. And another piece of good news is that levels of ergothioneine and glutathione are unaffected by cooking.
- They may have anticancer properties. Researchers from the University of Western Australia in Perth conducted a study of 2,000 Chinese women, roughly half of whom had suffered from breast cancer. The scientists reviewed the women’s eating habits and factored out other variables that contribute to cancer, such as being overweight, lack of exercise, and smoking. They found that those women who consumed at least 25g of fresh mushrooms every day (about one mushroom per day) were 64% less likely to develop breast cancer. In the study, dried mushrooms had a slightly less protective effect, reducing the risk by around half. Other research has found that white button mushroom powder was able to significantly lower prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, levels in men previously treated for prostate cancer. This may indicate a potential preventive application to reduce the risk of prostate cancer recurrence
- They may protect brain health and cognition. In a 2016 animal study published in the International Journal of Molecular Science, researchers examined the effects on the brain. Researchers found that when some mice with chemically-induced Alzheimer’s disease were given a particular type of mushroom – Lion’s Mane extract, they experienced reduced free radicals, blocked calcium overload, improved endurance, and reduced escape time in an ethically disturbing water maze test. Lion’s Mane was also the focus of a 2017 animal study, in which researchers found that supplementation given to healthy mice boosted neuronal function and improved recognition memory. And in a 2018 study published in Behavioural Neurology, researchers found that the same mushrooms promotes positive brain health by inducing nerve growth factor, which may help improve outcomes of ischemic stroke (the one caused by a blockage preventing blood from reaching the brain), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and depression if included in daily meals
- They are good for your heart. Mushrooms are rich in the amino acid ergothioneine, which has been associated with a lower risk for heart disease. In a 2019 study published in BMJ, researchers looked at the blood chemistry of 3,236 participants over 21 years, and found that higher levels of ergothioneine were associated with lower risk for heart disease diagnosis and mortality. Furthermore, the researchers found that higher levels of ergothioneine can likely be supported by eating a diet rich in this amino acid, of which mushrooms are a significant source. Other research has shown the reishi or lingzhi (G. lucidum) species of mushroom to offer specific cardioprotective effects because of its antioxidant activity.
- They are good for your gut and digestive system. Research shows that mushrooms act as a prebiotic, providing food for probiotics, and can help to stimulate the healthy balance and growth of your gut microbiota. They improve and regulate the microbiome, which is critically important to overall health. Studies have found that gut microbiota has a significant role in regulating diseases like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, pneumococcal pneumonia, gut conditions, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and possibly even neurodegenerative diseases.
Practical and Environmental Benefits of Mushrooms
Not only are mushrooms great for your health, but they are also really good for the environment. As nature’s master recyclers, fungi are adept at turning rotting vegetation into new growth!
Mushrooms have a symbiotic, or mutualistic, relationship with other plants.
Fungi that work synergistically with plants are called mycorrhizae. Here’s how it works: fungi colonize the roots of a host plant, helping them access and absorb more nutrients and water. In return, the plant provides the fungi with carbohydrates made through photosynthesis. Both also benefit from increased protection from pathogens.
Mushrooms are critical to decomposition.
Mushrooms are nature’s recyclers. They allow nutrients to be added back to soil and water so that other plants can use them to grow and reproduce.
Mushrooms are sustainably grown.
Many varieties of mushrooms are still wild-harvested and sold to small restaurants and farmers markets.
There are also commercially grown mushrooms and mushroom farms. Many commercial mushroom farms sell mushroom compost, which can be reused by farmers and gardeners growing less demanding crops. This compost can also be used as a mulch around perennials, trees, and shrubs.
Furthermore, mushrooms produce an abundance of food for relatively little input of water and energy compared to many other crops.
Mushrooms could help clean up oil spills and toxic chemicals.
Mushrooms are highly absorbable, intricate, and seemingly intelligent (that is, responding actively and appropriately to their environment, even when encountering new situations). And some mushroom researchers like Paul Stamets believe that they could be used to help solve a number of human problems. While more research is needed, some of these ideas include using mushrooms to break down petrochemicals or absorb radiation from contaminated soil and water, or to cleanse industrial runoff and filter toxins and endocrine disruptors.
Potential Mushroom Health Risks
Not all mushrooms are edible.
In fact, many wild types are poisonous. So, before you go foraging for mushrooms in the wild, make sure you know which types are safe to eat. Poisonous mushrooms can cause a wide array of symptoms, ranging from mild gastric upset to death, so it’s best to stick to the ones you can find at the supermarket or farmers market.
Psychedelic mushrooms contain a naturally-occurring compound called psilocybin that gives them their “magical” effects, which can be described as inducing an altered state of consciousness. Even in small doses, magic mushrooms can alter your sense perception and have hallucinogenic effects.
Raw mushrooms may contain toxins.
Certain raw edible mushrooms — including popular varieties like the white button mushroom — appear to have a naturally-occurring compound called agaratine, which may have toxicological or even potentially carcinogenic effects. Agaratine is destroyed by heat, so it’s always a good idea to cook mushrooms, and refrain from eating them raw, to be on the safe side.