Mushrooms: love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t argue with the facts. There are lots of edible varieties, and they’re found in all types of cuisine, from Mexican food to Italian food and beyond. But are mushrooms healthy? We looked to the experts to find out the details of this fungi favorite (or not-so-favorite). According to research conducted by Paul Stamets, mycologist (a biologist who studies fungi), in general, mushrooms are great sources of B vitamins and vitamin D. They’re also high in minerals like potassium, copper, and selenium, which Stamets writes are important for maintaining a healthy immune system. In his research, Stamets points out that mushrooms are chock full of medicinal compounds like triterpenoids and glycoproteins as well.
But what is a mushroom, exactly?
“A mushroom is neither a fruit or a vegetable,” says registered dietitian Vanessa Rissetto. “Technically mushrooms aren’t even plants. They are a special type of fungus.” Registered dietitian Lisa Hayim explains that plants produce their own energy, while fungi have to absorb nutrients from the environment around them in order to make energy.
What are the health benefits of mushrooms?
As Stamets found in his study, mushrooms are a great source of several vitamins and minerals, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all that mushrooms have to offer. As it turns out, the nutritional profile of mushrooms is pretty diverse, but here are a few of our favorite health benefits:
You may have heard that mushrooms have anti-cancer properties, but what’s the truth of the matter? According to a study published by the Public Library of Science, mushrooms contain polysaccharides, which have tumor-inhibiting qualities. The researchers concluded that a greater intake of edible mushrooms could decrease the risk of breast cancer. A study published in Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology explains that triterpenoids—another compound found in some edible mushrooms—could have anti-cancer benefits too, because they are anti-inflammatory and inhibit the growth of cancer cells. [pullquote align=”center”]“Shiitake mushrooms contain lentinan that protects cells from DNA damage, thus reducing cancer or disease formation.” —Arti Lakhani, MD[/pullquote] “Mushrooms are high in antioxidants, which is great with those diagnosed with any malignancy, as antioxidants reduce free radical damage and reduce DNA damage,” says Arti Lakhani, MD, oncologist, hematologist, and director of the integrative oncology program at AMITA Health Cancer Institute in Illinois. Reishi mushrooms, a type of medicinal mushroom, are one of Lakhani’s favorites, as they’re known to have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. “Shiitake mushrooms contain lentinan that protects cells from DNA damage, thus reducing cancer or disease formation,” adds Lakhani.
A study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine states that mushrooms may have immune-boosting benefits because they’re anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial. “Beta glucans are found in mushrooms and help cell walls stimulate an immune response,” says Hayim.
Weight Management and Blood Sugar Control
If you’re trying to lose weight, you know just how difficult that process can be. Mushrooms might help. A study published in the journal Appetite reports that eating mushrooms instead of meat at breakfast could leave you feeling fuller for longer, which could help you eat less during the day. “Because they’re high fiber, that means mushrooms are digested slowly and thus can decrease blood sugar spikes and keep you fuller longer,” says Lakhani, who adds that this is useful if you have diabetes or are trying to control your weight. As an added bonus: Fiber can lower cholesterol, says Lakhani.
Reishi mushrooms are an adaptogen, which means they help the body in times of physical and mental stress, says Lakhani. “They improve mood and energy and normalize any hormonal imbalance,” she says. According to research published in Phytomedicine, adaptogens change the way your body responds to stress (possibly by stimulating the production of proteins that curb stress).
So, are mushrooms healthy? Experts weigh in.
As you can see, mushrooms can have some impressive health benefits, which is why experts agree that they are healthy. “Mushrooms are low in calories, low in sugar, have no fat, and no sodium,” says Lakhani. They’re also high in antioxidants and fiber, says Lakhani. Rissetto says three and a half ounces of crimini mushrooms contain 44 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and 30 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin B3 (niacin); white button mushrooms have 36 and 30 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamins B2 and B3, respectively; and oyster mushrooms have 32 and 39 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamins B2 and B3, respectively. “These B vitamins are believed to help boost metabolism,” Rissetto explains. Plus, certain types of mushrooms, like reishi, chaga, and cordyceps, have adaptogenic properties that support health, Hayim says.
Best Ways to Incorporate Mushrooms Into Your Diet
If you want to eat more mushrooms but aren’t quite sure where to start, you have plenty of options. Rissetto says white button, portobello, and crimini are some of the most popular varieties. “I love cooking with portobello because they are super hearty,” she says. “I often make a pizza with it that is super low-carb and easy to make.” Bonus pro-tip: Mushrooms have a lot of water in them, so Rissetto recommends scooping out the gills to make them less wet. Hayim adds that mushrooms are a great side dish when simply sautéed or roasted. They can also be thrown into any dish from stir-fries to soups, and portobello mushrooms can even be used as a meat substitute, says Hayim. In his research, Stamets points out that heating mushrooms at very high temperatures can degrade the B vitamins in them, but eating mushrooms raw offers little nutritional value and can cause tummy troubles. According to a study in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, grilling is one of the best ways to cook mushrooms without sacrificing their nutritional value. (And all you busy bees out there can rest easy knowing that microwaving is also a recommended cooking method for maintaining the nutritional profile of mushrooms.) As far as medicinal mushrooms like reishi are concerned, Hayim recommends using powders that you can add to coffee or drink as an elixir. Alison Wu, who is a food stylist, recipe developer, and wellness writer, is a big fan of reishi and cordyceps, which she adds to her morning matcha. She advises keeping your portion size small. “As a general rule of thumb, I don’t usually put more than three to four adaptogens in each potion,” she says. “You only really need a half teaspoon of each adaptogen,” she says.
Potential Dangers of Mushrooms
“There are no real risks to the most common types of mushrooms, so they’re safe to enjoy without issue,” says Rissetto. You just want to make sure you’re getting your mushrooms from the right source, like a grocery store. Research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal highlighted the case of a woman who ate wild mushrooms then went to the emergency room with stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. She left with a new liver. No thanks! So as long as your mushrooms come from a grocery store or farmers market (and you haven’t harvested them from the wilderness), you’re safe to reap the nutritional—and delicious!—benefits of this fascinating fungus. Eat up!