Are Mushrooms Good For You?

Are Mushrooms Good For You? Facts and Fiction

"Chicken of the Woods," and edible fungus (Photo: Karen McDonald)

What Are the Benefits of Eating Mushrooms?

While taking a hike through the woods yesterday I noticed that there was a beautiful abundance of wild mushrooms in all shapes, colors, and sizes scattered along the trail. There's one in particular, with a round dusty red cup and white underside that the squirrels and turtles seem to particularly like, while they leave all the others alone. This started me thinking about the nutritional role of mushrooms and what if anything they can contribute to a person's diet. Are mushrooms good for you? I always thought they were little more than "fluff" or extra stuff in a meal that add a bit of texture, so I started to do a little digging.

Mushroom on a rotting log (Photo: Karen McDonald)

What exactly is a mushroom?

A mushroom is the fruiting body of a fungus, scientists like to call it a sporocarp, which sounds like a funny type of fish, but what it really is is the reproductive fruit much like an apple. Unlike regular fruit it usually grows on the ground or on rotting logs and trees. It sprouts from something call the mycelium. If you've every opened a rotting piece of wood and see the white tendrils running along the inside, that's the mycelium. You can also find it in the soil and under leaf litter, which you may see when you rake leaves or clean around flower beds. Mycelium is made up of chains of fungal cells (hyphae) which feed on decaying organic matter. When the mycelium have the right conditions (moisture, warmth, food, etc), then they'll produce their reproductive bits, the mushrooms.

Fungi called basidoiomycetes produce mushrooms with gills underneath that make spores, think of button mushrooms,  portabello mushrooms, or jelly-like fungus that grows on logs.

Here you can see the gill structures of this mushroom (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Fungus called ascomycetes (cup mushrooms) produce spores in little packets or pods that are released into the environment, these are like morels or the molds that grow on breads.

Morel mushroom (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Mushrooms have one job, to spread spores, much like the seeds of plants. However, unlike the seeds of plants they don't have a "lunch" packed for them, meaning they lack a tasty fruit body covering them like apples or oranges or pears. Instead the spores fall directly onto the ground from underneath the cap of the mushroom or they are ejected and blown by the wind (I love stepping on puffball mushrooms and making the spores fly!).

Giant puffball mushroom (Photo: Flicker Sharing, Alan Wolf)

So if a mushroom is essentially the bit of the fungus that makes spores, and it's not like an apple or orange, are mushrooms good for you?

Edible Mushrooms and Their Benefits

From what I've found there are about 250 species of mushroom in North America that are edible. I'm going to say right now, please don't run out and just start pulling up mushrooms and eating them. Mycology, or the study of fungus takes many years, and you should never attempt to eat wild mushrooms with first having an expert tell you it's safe. If you want to know more take a class or check out books from your local library. I'll list a few resources at the end of this post.

Most of the mushrooms you'll ever eat will come from the grocery store, and these are cultivars; things like portabello mushrooms, button mushrooms, oyster mushroom, crimini, and shiitake.

Shiitake mushrooms (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Mushrooms like those listed above are a low calorie food and are high in fiber. At the same time they are low in fat and high in protein. They are also rich in B (B1, B2, B3, and B6) and D vitamins, copper, folate and niacin (which helps metabolize food into energy), and pantothenic acid. A typical 1 cup serving of portabella mushrooms (raw) can contain up to 430 mg of potassium while one medium banana has about 422 mg! This is great news for myself (as a rower) and other athletes that like mushrooms on their salads or in foods. If you'd like to know more about each type of mushroom, and their specific nutrient content, then I'd suggest visiting the Nutrition Fact and Analysis page. They have all the information you need, just like the labels on boxes and cans at the grocery store.

What Does the Research Say?

Interesting research is coming out of Penn State University and Dr. Robert Bellman regarding the potential anti-oxident properties of mushrooms. An amino acid called L-ergothioneine (ERGO), which sounds like an elfin word from some Tolkein fiction, is an antioxident found in the common grocery store mushrooms I mentioned earlier.  It was originally found in ergot fungus which caused the hallucinations of the witches in Salem Mass. too!

Dr. Bellman's research suggests that it may have strong physiological effects on inflammatory diseases and inflammation in the body. As you can see from the graph below (Duboset et. Al, 2006), Shitake mushrooms and oyster mushrooms have the highest concentration of ergo in their fruiting bodies.

mushroom graph
Graph pertaining to levels of ERGO in mushrooms (Graph: Duboset e. al 2006)

He suggests that ERGO is an important cytoprotectant (si-toe-protect-ant), or a chemical compound that can provide protection of human cells from harmful agents, this is because  ERGO is shown to protect cells from damage and UV radiation. He even suggests that it be considered as a new vitamin! The interesting thing is that ERGO can't be made by vascular plants or animals, it has to be taken up from the soil, and the easiest way to get it is through the fungus that we eat!

Chicken of the woods, a common edible fungus that tastes like "chicken" (Photo: Karen McDonald)

So, are mushrooms good for you? The answer is YES, they absolutely are! The health benefits of eating mushrooms is very high. They offer mineral, micronutrients, vitamins, high levels of potassium, fiber and protein. They also offer antioxidents that can help protect the cells of your body. So eat those edible mushrooms and stay healthy!

For those with kids, or if you like to grow your own food, I'd highly recommend getting a mushroom growing kit. You can purchase a lot or compressed sawdust that is seeded with mushroom spores. Nothing is required, they grow from the box or container. Water them and you can have fungus to eat in a few weeks! The nice thing is you can let some of the fungus "spore" and keep the mycelium alive and fed to produce many generations of mushrooms.

mushroom farm


Want to know more about identifying wild mushrooms? Check out these resources: