Mushroom: An almost perfect food

NOT really a vegetable, mushroom is among the most nutritious and popular foods. The ancient civilizations of Egypt, Rome and China knew of the importance of edible mushrooms as food.  

Egyptian pharaohs zealously kept the mushrooms for their own use, decreeing it was too delicate a morsel for commoners—who could eat garlic!

The Romans restricted mushroom consumption to the nobility. Later, convinced that mushrooms gave their soldiers strength, the Romans permitted them to eat the fungus. The ancient Chinese called mushrooms the “divine fruit of immortality,” and Buddha is believed to have eaten them before being transported to nirvana.

Historians are not entirely certain about the time period in which humans first began cultivation of mushrooms for food, but this cultivation most likely began in Asia, involving cultivation in China, Japan and India. The first Western cultivation dates back to the 17th century in Europe. Especially well-known is mushroom cultivation that began in France, specifically in the catacombs (underground caves and tunnels) that lay beneath the city of Paris. The button mushrooms are sometimes referred to as Paris mushrooms (champignons de Paris) for this reason.

More than 100,000 varieties of mushrooms have been discovered, of which 2,000 are reportedly edible or fit for human consumption. The most widely cultivated mushroom species are kabuting saging, tainga ng daga, shiitake, abalone and champignon.

Nutrient density is the term used to describe the concentration of nutrients per calorie offered by a given food. In his book, Eat for Health, Dr. Joel Fuhrman ranks a variety of foods based on their nutrient density, and mushrooms score 134, which is higher than most fruits, including blueberries and raspberries, some vegetables, and all meat, eggs and dairy products. In fact, Fuhrman includes mushrooms among the foods so nutrient-dense and low-calorie that they can be eaten in unlimited quantities.

Nutritionally speaking, mushroom is an “almost perfect food.” In an article, Rob Poulos wrote: “Mushrooms may be small, but nutrition facts prove that they have plenty of vitamins and minerals. One cup of mushrooms includes vitamins C, D, B6 and B12, plus large doses of riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid. These vitamins, along with minerals like calcium, iron, potassium and selenium, keep you fit and in good health.”

One of the best things about mushrooms is that they are very low in calories. One cup of button mushrooms, for instance, has just 15 calories. Mushroom’s low calorie count is just one reason it is an important fat-burning food.

Mushrooms are also a fat-free food, which is helpful when you need to lose weight. What’s more, mushrooms have no cholesterol and less than 1 percent of your daily value of sodium. Although not a lot, mushrooms also contain small amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fiber, which aid in fat loss.

The Chinese recognized the medicinal properties of some mushrooms and featured them in their herbal medicine tradition, according to E.R. Boa, author of the book Wild Edible Fungi: a Global Overview of Their Use and Importance to People.

Mushrooms contain some of the most potent natural medicines on the planet. Of the 140,000 species of mushroom-forming fungi, science is familiar with only 10 percent, according to world-renowned mycologist Paul Stamets, who has written six books on the topic.

In recent years, scientific studies have identified the following health benefits from mushrooms:

• Fights cancer: In Japan a study found shiitake mushroom to be a formidable cancer fighter. In 1969 scientists at Tokyo’s National Center Research Institute isolated a polysaccharide compound from shiitake they called lentinan. In laboratory trials, lentinan caused tumors in mice to regress or vanish in 80 percent to 100 percent of the subjects. Lentinan appears “to stimulate immune-system cells to clear the body of tumor cells.” Lentinan has shown some effect on bowel cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer, ovarian cancer and lung cancer.

The abalone mushrooms are a natural source of statin drugs, specifically the isomers of lovastatin. In 2009 a case-control study of the eating habits of 2,018 women revealed that women who consumed mushrooms had an approximately 50 percent lower incidence of breast cancer. Women who consumed mushrooms and green tea had a 90 percent lower incidence of breast cancer. 

• Ideal for diabetics: Mushrooms can be an ideal low-energy diet for diabetics, as they have no fats, no cholesterol, very low carbohydrates, high proteins, vitamins and minerals, a lot of water and fiber. More important, they contain natural insulin and enzymes, which help breaking down of sugar or starch of the food. Again, they are known to contain certain compounds, which help proper functioning of liver, pancreas and the other endocrinal glands, thereby promoting formation of insulin and its proper flow. Diabetics often suffer from infections, particularly in their limbs, which tend to continue for long. The natural antibiotics in mushrooms can help protect diabetics from this dreaded situation, too.

• Lowers cholesterol level: Research conducted in Japan identified a specific amino acid in shiitake that helps speed up the processing of cholesterol in the liver. In a 1974 study, 40 elderly individuals and 420 young women consumed 9 grams of dried shiitake or the equivalent amount of fresh shiitake (90 grams) every day for seven days. After a week, total cholesterol levels had dropped 7 percent to 15 percent in the older group, and 6 to 12 percent in the young women.

• Boosts immune system: A study done on mice and published by the American Society for Nutrition found that white button mushrooms may promote immune function by increasing the production of antiviral and other proteins that are released by cells while they are trying to protect and repair the body’s tissues. A later study showed that these mushrooms promoted the maturation of immune system cells—called dendritic cells—from bone marrow. According to the researchers, this may help enhance the body’s immunity leading to better defense systems against invading microbes.

• Kicks up metabolism: B vitamins are vital for turning food (carbohydrates) into fuel (glucose), which the body burns to produce energy. They also help the body metabolize fats and protein. “Mushrooms contain loads of vitamin B2 [riboflavin] and vitamin B3 [niacin],” reports Margaret Nearing in an article which appeared in Best Health Magazine.

• Good to your bladder: An analysis of seven studies—published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention—showed that the higher the level of selenium, as measured in blood serum and toenails, the lower the risk of bladder cancer. Selenium had a significant protective effect mainly among women, which the researchers believe may result from gender-specific differences in its accumulation and excretion.

With all those health benefits, as the World’s No. 1 Natural Health web site puts it, “It becomes easy to see how mushrooms may be an important part of an optimal diet. If you don’t like to eat them whole, you can also find them in supplement form, either as an extract or whole food supplement.”

Not all mushrooms are edible; there are those that are highly poisonous and look strikingly similar to their edible counterparts. An unknown author once wrote: “Love is like a poisonous mushroom—you don’t know if it is the real thing until it is too late.” 

Claudius II and Pope Clement VII were both killed by enemies who poisoned them with deadly mushrooms. Buddha died, according to legend, from a mushroom that grew underground. Buddha was given the mushroom by a peasant who believed it to be a delicacy.

The World’s Healthiest Foods cautions: “Don’t ever try picking up mushrooms from woods unless you identify them very well. Do not trust unknown vendors, too. Always trust sealed products from reputed companies or those you grow yourself under controlled conditions after buying their seeds (called spawns) from a trusted source. Avoid eating discolored mushrooms or those that are different in color than the characteristic color of their species.”

Thank God for mushrooms. No wonder John Ford said, “I am…a mushroom; on whom the dew of heaven drops now and then.”

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