Mushrooms have been a culinary staple for about as long as humans have been cooking with fire, perhaps even longer. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that prehistoric people regularly collected wild ones. To the ancient Romans, this fungus was considered a food fit for the gods, while the Chinese believed they empowered people with Herculean strength. Whether or not these cultures were aware of the nutritional value of mushrooms is unclear. Today, however, their many health benefits are well documented.
Like most plants, mushrooms are loaded with polysaccharides, phytonutrients that appear to possess potent anti-cancer properties. Specifically, several studies indicate that eating them may help to prevent breast cancer. This is attributed to the inhibition of aromatase, an enzyme involved in hyperestrogenemia, a condition characterized by excessive estrogen production. Mushrooms are also high in other antioxidants, such as L-ergothioneine. In fact, they contain higher levels of this agent than other dietary sources, including liver and wheat germ, and are not depleted during cooking.
According to the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, research suggests that niacin-rich foods, like mushrooms, appear to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders by as much as 70%. In addition, niacin interrupts the activity of homocysteine, an amino acid associated with elevated cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and osteoarthritis.
Mushrooms are also dense in several nutrients and minerals. They are an excellent source of iron, selenium, potassium, phosphorus, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, copper, and zinc. In addition to providing antioxidant value, these nutrients also play a role in enhancing immunity and preventing disease. For instance, zinc is necessary for a variety of enzymatic processes that affect metabolic functioning, including cell division and repair. Studies have shown that an adequate zinc supply is required for wound healing and to stabilize blood glucose levels, an amount that equates to 5 ounces (141.75 grams) of mushrooms daily.
Most of the research completed on the health benefits of mushrooms has focused on the shiitake, maitake, reishi, and crimini varieties. More recent research, however, indicates that common white button mushrooms provide just as much potential to fight cancer and reduce blood pressure and cholesterol as fancier varieties. This includes Portobellos (an oversized Crimini), the popular vegetarian meat alternative.
While the benefits of mushrooms are easily understood, it should also be noted that they might pose potential health hazards for certain people. For one thing, only those with an expertise in botanical identification should attempt to collect the fungus from the wild since some varieties are toxic. In addition, mushrooms contain purines, an organic compound and precursor to uric acid that can be harmful in excessive amounts. Therefore, individuals with a history of developing gout, kidney stones, or other disorder related to impaired uric acid conversion, should avoid or limit purine-containing foods.