Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
Most of us have at least one irrational food dislike, right? Mine is mushrooms. My wife told me to not write about this topic because I am incapable of being objective. In fact, when my daughters were young, I would visit their classrooms to give the doctor/dad health talk. Somehow my anti-mushroom bias would sneak in, and I hereby apologize to any impressionable young minds I may have impacted. Hopefully my other, more scientifically based, messages got through. I am now older and hopefully more mature, so here is a far more balanced evaluation of the literature on the health impact of mushrooms.
Mushrooms have been consumed for thousands of years. Early Greek, Egyptian, Roman, Chinese, and Mexican civilizations valued the mushroom as both a culinary delicacy and as a medicine. They are normally classified as a vegetable or an herb, but mushrooms are actually fungi. They are found in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Poisonous mushrooms can be difficult to identify in the wild, so unless you are skilled in picking them, always buy from a reliable source.
Claims abound that certain mushroom species, consumed as either food or extracts, may reduce the risk of disease. Some interesting research includes the following:
One study substituted mushrooms for meat, thereby reducing calories over a six-month period. Those on the mushroom diet experienced a significant loss in body weight, BMI, and inches around the waist. However, the meat group did as well, and the difference between the two groups was not statistically significant. One guess is that when we cut out one source of fat, we tend to substitute another.
A shitake mushroom extract was tested to see if it could improve oral health by slowing tooth demineralization and alter the microbes in our mouth. The study looked at a placebo, the shitake extract oral mouth rinse, and a leading gingivitis mouthwash. The mushroom rinse performed best, followed by the gingivitis mouthwash, and last was the placebo.
An association was demonstrated between mushroom intake and a lower breast cancer risk for women with certain types of tumors.
Various mice studies have demonstrated improvements in the gut microbiota, mental cognition, and immune function. However, human studies haven’t yet confirmed such findings.
Research would still be useful to identify potential benefits of various species of mushrooms. Be careful, however, as there are numerous unproven claims out there that sound way too good to be true – and probably are.
But this much is clear: mushrooms are fat-free and quite low in calories and sodium, and are therefore a good food for people trying to control calories and blood pressure. They are also an excellent source of potassium (a portabella mushroom has more potassium than a banana), which helps to further lower blood pressure. They are loaded with antioxidants, including selenium, which help to protect the body from damaging free radicals that can lead to heart disease and cancer. They are a significant source of beta glucan, which is a form of soluble dietary fiber that helps to lower cholesterol and regulate blood sugar. Mushrooms are rich in the B-vitamins riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid. They are rich in copper, which helps the body make red blood cells and vitamin D.
With enormous reluctance, I must conclude that mushrooms are a nutritionally sound food, filled with substances that may very well boost our health. While I still have absolutely no intention to add them to my own menu, I will admit that they certainly can be a part of a sound and balanced diet.