Many people do not like mushrooms because of the texture or the earthy flavour, but do not discount the value of a mushroom. Though usually grouped with vegetables in our lexicon and in grocery stores, mushrooms are neither plant nor animal; they are fungi with neither leaves nor roots and they don’t need sunlight to produce food (photosynthesis). Mushrooms thrive by releasing spores and extracting nutrients from decaying organic matter. Quite the little package when you get right down to it.
Most popular in North America are white button mushrooms and the Portobello, but others we see regularly include shiitake, chanterelles, oyster and morel mushrooms. With varying flavours and textures, all of these deliver benefits to our palates, and our health.
Historically, mushrooms have been used not just as food but also for medicinal purposes, especially in Asia. This makes much sense as mushrooms contain nutrients important to our bodies. For example, mushrooms contain compounds with antioxidant properties; they are also known to have anti-inflammatory properties and can boost the immune system.
Mushrooms are loaded with essential nutrients including some B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. When exposed to natural sunlight or artificial UV light, even after harvesting, natural ergosterols in mushrooms produce vitamin D. They also contain polyphenols and other bioactive compounds, along with fibre — all contributing to health.
At the same time, we must take into account that not all mushrooms are so friendly: some wild mushrooms can be poisonous, even fatal. Death Cap mushrooms are one example that can be found not only in the ‘wild’ or forest, but also in your own backyard. Here is a simple rule: unless you are an expert, don’t eat mushrooms you find in the wild, or in the yard. And remember, cooking does not destroy the poison.
Mushrooms are a tasty addition to a menu. At only 20 calories per cup, they provide a healthy contribution to any meal. They are an ideal accompaniment for meat, or even a substitute for it. The texture and taste of mushrooms means they can be used in place of some meat. Try using mushrooms to replace up to half the hamburger meat in a burger, taco, chili or even meatloaf. Mushrooms contain ample dietary fiber which plays an important role in weight management. It does this by acting as a “bulking agent” in the digestive system. This in turn increases satiety and reduces appetite, making you feel fuller longer and so lowering your overall calorie intake.
These fungi may look like plants, but they do much more than ‘mere’ plants. Mushrooms provide many of the same nutritional benefits as produce, but they also deliver attributes more commonly found in meat, beans or grains. Mushrooms are low in calories, fat-free, cholesterol-free, gluten-free, and very low in sodium, yet they provide important nutrients. Might we consider mushrooms as one of our perfect foods? You decide.
Written by Dr. Paul Martiquet, Medical Health Officer for the Sunshine Coast and Powell River.