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Mushrooms on the side

Mushrooms have been popping up in health discussions a lot lately.

Mushrooms have been popping up in health discussions a lot lately.

Interestingly, mushrooms are neither plants nor animals. Although they share some qualities of both, they belong to the fungi family, which are composed of simple organisms.

Over the past 50 years, much medical advancement had hinged on simple organisms, like: mould, yeast and fungi. In fact, the first antibiotics (penicillin, tetracycline and auremycin) were created from moulds and used as miracle cures for infections and communicable diseases. Recently, a drug derived from fungus (Cyclosporin) has been used to prevent rejection after organ transplants.

You may be surprised at how many common foods use simple organisms for their production, such as: bread, beer, wine, cheese, organic acids, and even some vitamins.

Lately, mushrooms in particular have been drawing attention because of their health-building qualities. Studies show that some mushrooms have antiviral, antibacterial and anticancer features. Mushrooms also have a number of nutrients: vegetable proteins, fibre, pantothenic acid, vitamins (thymine, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, B complex and C), minerals (iron, zinc, calcium, and copper) and antioxidants.

Interestingly, mushrooms are the only natural fresh vegetable or fruit withVitamin D.

They are ideal for the weightconscious, since they are about 90% water and have only 100 cal/oz. They are very low in sodium and fat, and very high in fibre.

Traditional Chinese medicine has used mushrooms to promote good health and vitality, believing they make your body more resilient when stressed. Current studies support this idea. Mushrooms are considered probiotic, meaning that they help the body strengthen itself and fight off disease by keeping the body systems balanced. They contain compounds called Host Defense Potentiators (HDP) which build your immune system. These are included in cancer treatments in Japan and China and are being considered for use in North America and Europe now.

Often mushrooms are ignored when we plan our menus because we focus on the brightly coloured fruits and vegetables since we know they are full of nutrition. However, this narrow focus leaves mushrooms in the dark, even though mushrooms share many of the same important nutrients and are just as healthy.

One particular nutrient that stands out is selenium. Selenium is a mineral that protects body cells from the damage that leads to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, some cancers (prostate, colorectal), and agerelated diseases. Selenium is also critical for immune system health, and improves male fertility. Even though meats and grains are good sources of selenium, mushrooms are one of the richest sources, giving up to 22 mcg/serving (depending on the soil they were grown on).

To be sure to get these vital nutrients, toss a few mushrooms in your grocery cart. The produce department has some different types to choose from.

North America’s favourite is the white button mushroom (Agaricus bisporus). Two other kinds of Agaricus bisporus are brown mushrooms (Crimini) which have an earthier flavour and a firmer texture, and Portabella mushrooms which have a meaty flavour along with a large umbrella-shaped cap. Notably, one medium portabella mushroom has even more potassium than a banana or a glass of orange juice.

Another popular type is the Reishi mushroom. They contain ingredients that can reduce tumour growth. They also work as painkillers, anti-inflammatories, antioxidants, antibacterials and antivirals. They can lower blood pressure, prevent lung congestion and maintain liver health.

Shiitake mushrooms contain lentinan, which has been licensed in Japan as an anti-cancer drug. These have can be helpful for treating certain cancers: bowel, liver, stomach, ovarian and lung. They contain several anti-oxidants (selenium, Vitamins A, E, and C) as well as Vitamin D.

One strong point making mushrooms popular is their availability. No matter the season, you can find mushrooms in the grocery store: canned, dried, frozen or fresh.

When shopping for mushrooms, handle them with care. Bruises affect their taste and decrease their nutritional value. Look for small to medium mushrooms that have their caps closed around the stem. As well, the top of their cap should be white, creamy or light brown in colour, with no dark spots. Overripe mushrooms have wide open caps and dark gills underneath. Damaged mushrooms may have caps with dents or dark blotches.

When you get your mushrooms home, store them in the fridge in the same package you bought them in. The best idea is to put them in a paper bag and leave them in it. They need to breathe, so don’t pack them too tightly. Don’t store them in a plastic bag or in the crisper. The crisper is moist, so they will rot quickly there. Usually fresh mushrooms stored properly will stay fresh for about a week.

Use mushrooms as a main course or add them to soups and salads. When on the road, centre on your health and order mushrooms on the side.

– Karen Bowen is a professional health and nutrition consultant and she can be reached by e-mail at

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