Feast on the Fungus: The Benefits of Eating Mushrooms

It is the early Greeks and Romans who are thought to be the first cultivators of mushrooms. These fleshy fungi have been used for both culinary and medicinal purposes for centuries. In fact, the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle called mushrooms nature’s “oldest art.” Mushrooms are not only a prizewinner in the flavor department, but also offer a unique nutrient profile. There are thousands of varieties of mushrooms on our planet, though only about 20 are cultivated commercially– among them are readily available white (or “button”) mushrooms, as well as crimini and portabella. In addition, wild mushrooms like shiitake, morels and chanterelles, are now increasingly finding their way into supermarkets throughout the US.  

Nutrient Composition

Mushrooms are recognized as a source of powerful nutrients that have identified as under-consumed by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans; these include potassium, fiber, calcium and vitamin D3. In fact, mushrooms are the only source of vitamin D in the produce aisle, as they contain the vitamin D precursor that is converted to active vitamin D2 upon sunlight exposure. This increased vitamin D content in turn helps with calcium utilization. Often grouped as “white vegetables” for dietary recommendations, mushrooms provide the many common nutritional attributes of fresh produce, as well as of meats and grains. Mushrooms are a good (10%-19% Daily Value) source of several B vitamins, including riboflavin (B2) and niacin (B3), which play important roles in energy production and the nervous system. In addition, they are a source of important minerals such as selenium, copper and potassium.

Health Benefits

There is a rapidly growing body of evidence supporting the positive effects of mushrooms on health. A majority of studies have focused on the relationship between mushroom consumption and improved immune function, plausibly related to anti-inflammatory activities, as well as anti-cancer effects.. Particularly, consistent results have shown favorable outcomes for breast cancer. Ongoing studies have investigated other potential health outcomes in relation to obesity, vitamin D deficiency, and possibly, vitamin D-related disease states such as bone metabolism and metabolic syndrome. In fact, it has been reported that mushroom intake was shown to improve insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes.

A Sustainable Culinary Solution

Another good reason to add mushrooms to your diet is that they are usually sourced locally or regionally, and their production is congruent with a sustainable food supply. This translates to more efficient control of environmental factors, land use, as well as energy and water needs. Apart from the various nutrient characteristics mentioned above, mushrooms are widely celebrated for their texture and umami flavor, making them a potential substitute for meat. With that said, it must be noted that different cooking techniques will affect the umami property of mushrooms. Searing and oven roasting mushrooms are the best ways to maximize umami. If you prefer a meatier texture, raw, steamed or sautéed mushrooms are the way to go, thus producing milder umami in comparison.  


This post was originally published by the Natural Gourmet Institute. Learn more about today's Natural Gourmet Center.


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