Learn all about mushrooms and their links to heart health, cancer prevention and more.

By Cara Rosenbloom RD
May 16, 2021
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You may have heard the wise advice to eat a rainbow of vegetables daily. Remember that white and brown are important colors, too! From mushrooms to cauliflower to onions, vegetables with these hues add a lot of health value to your meals.  

Mushrooms are especially nutritious. They have strong links to anti-cancer activity and heart health, plus have a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Here we'll explore the kaleidoscope of health benefits from a variety of mushrooms.

Beneficial nutrients in mushrooms

Mushrooms, a type of edible fungus, are low in calories, fat-free, and contain no sugar or sodium. While each mushroom has its own unique health benefits and healing properties, there are some common features across all mushrooms. They are a source of B-vitamins, as well as trace minerals including selenium and copper.

Mushrooms stand out for being the only vegetable that's a natural source of vitamin D, an important nutrient that supports immune health and strong bones. Mushrooms can make vitamin D when they are exposed to sunlight, or a sunlamp if they are grown indoors. They contain a plant sterol called ergosterol, which helps convert light into vitamin D.

Selenium and vitamin D are both immune-supporting nutrients, so eating mushrooms may play a role in keeping your immune system functioning well.

Rich in polysaccharides (a fancy word for a type of carbohydrate), mushrooms specifically contain one called beta-glucan. One study showed that since beta-glucans aren't broken down well in the body, these non-digestible carbs act as prebiotics in the digestive tract. Prebiotics are the food for probiotics, which are healthy bacteria necessary for proper immune function.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms and cancer

There have been a lot of studies on the health benefits of mushrooms to help prevent and treat a variety of different types of cancer. A 2012 review of studies found that mushrooms help complement chemotherapy and radiation therapy by countering the side-effects of cancer, such as nausea, bone marrow suppression and anemia.

It's difficult to know exactly how eating mushrooms will translate into cancer protection, since most of the clinical studies use mushroom powder, supplements or concentrated mushroom extract. That's not the same as munching on a button mushroom in a spinach salad.

In one study, researchers obtained extracts from portobello, oyster, button, cremini and maitake mushrooms.  They added the extracts to breast cancer cells in petri dishes (not in the human body), and found that cell proliferation reduced by 33 percent, and the maitake and oyster mushrooms were the most effective. Hopeful results!

Reishi mushrooms have long been used in TCM and have been studied for their use in cancer care. They are used as an add-on therapy in cancer patients, where they may help supress cancer cell growth and stop cancer cells from spreading. Again, the studies used medicinal doses and formats of mushrooms, not edible mushrooms.

These studies highlight that it's important to know the difference between eating mushrooms as part of meals, and using supplements or extracts medicinally for cancer care. Speak to an oncologist or TCM practitioner for more information on using medicinal mushrooms.

Mushrooms and heart health

Mushrooms contain two types of fiber — soluble, which helps regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and insoluble, which helps keep you regular.

They also contain a potent antioxidant called L-ergothioneine, which is most highly concentrated in portobello and cremini mushrooms. Studies show that ergothioneine has anti-inflammatory effects, and may help reduce the risk of developing the metabolic syndrome, a condition that includes high blood sugar, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. These cluster of conditions lead to heart disease.

One study found that replacing beef with mushrooms helped reduce weight, cholesterol levels and blood pressure levels among adults. And since mushrooms have a meaty texture, they are an easy substitution for dishes such as chili, veggie burgers and stew

whole and sliced fresh porcini mushrooms on a cutting board
Credit: Mataya/Getty Images

Mushroom varieties

Mushrooms can be farm-grown or harvested from the wild. Of course, not all mushrooms are edible — so foraging for mushrooms is best left to the professionals. There are over 2,000 species of edible and medicinal mushrooms, but if you buy yours at the grocery store or farmers' market, you'll likely come across these popular varieties:

  • White or button
    This variety represents about 90 percent of mushrooms eaten in the U.S. They have a woodsy flavor and can be enjoyed raw or cooked.
  • Portobello
    These large caps have a meaty texture and are great when grilled or sautéed.
  • Cremini
    Smaller varieties of the portobello, they are often marketed as Baby Bellas.
  • Shiitake
    These dark brown mushrooms are spongy and meaty, and are great for stir-fries.
  • Oyster
    Delicate, mildly-flavored and velvety, these mushrooms can be eaten raw or cooked.
  • Enoki
    These tiny mushroom bundles have a mild flavor and slight crunch.
  • Maitake or Hen of the Woods
    Their strong earthy taste adds flavor to soup, stir-fries and pizza.
  • King Oyster or Royal Trumpet
    The thick, chewy flesh makes these mushrooms great in cooked dishes, especially from the grill.

Cooking with mushrooms

Mushrooms make a great addition to soup, salads, pasta dishes, stir-fries and barbeques. Try some of these fantastic recipes: