In a college town, the local residents (like me) often wait until holiday break or summer when the college students are away to try new restaurants. So, over break, I took my brother to one of the new popular haunts that opened this fall. The restaurant served a variety of tacos. My brother chose fajita chicken tacos while I opted for a variety of vegetarian ones.
One of my tacos included portobello mushrooms. "So you like to have fungi in your tacos?" my brother asked. "I am trying to eat more vegetables," I replied. My brother countered by wondering whether mushrooms are considered vegetables and whether they have any nutritional benefits. Good questions So, after a bit of research, I wanted to share my findings.
A fungi or a vegetable?
There is some room for confusion here. Encyclopedia Britannica and Medical News Today describe mushrooms as fungi. However, Produce for Better Health lists mushrooms in its vegetable nutrition database, while the Ohio State University Extension reports that mushrooms are classified as a vegetable when considered an edible food item. Lastly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture includes nutrition information on mushrooms in the “vegetables” and “vegetable products” category.
There is consensus that there are multiple types of mushrooms that can be found commercially. Common ones include portobello, oyster, hen of the wood, shiitake, cremini, white button, chanterelle and porcini. In addition, some mushrooms can only be foraged in the wild; however, you should be cautious about foraging unless you are an expert, since many types are inedible and some are poisonous.
Mushrooms and nutrition
Medical News Today reports that the philosophy about vegetables the more colorful the better is incorrect when looking at mushrooms. Mushrooms are often referred to as functional foods, meaning they have a potentially positive effect on health because they offer additional benefits that are believed to reduce the risk of disease, as well as promote optimal health. For instance, researchers are finding that mushrooms provide some unique support to the immune system. These fungi also are naturally low in fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories.
In general, mushrooms are rich in a variety of B vitamins, including riboflavin, folate and niacin. They also are a non-fortified dietary source of vitamin D. Some animal studies suggest that button mushrooms help with regulation of unwanted inflammation. They also contain beta-glucans that may help improve insulin resistance and blood cholesterol levels, while also lowering the risk of obesity.
Individual types of mushrooms also offer specific benefits. The George Mateljan Foundation reports that cremini mushrooms which are young portobello mushrooms are good sources of copper, selenium, vitamin B2, pantothenic acid, vitamin B3 and phosphorus. Furthermore, one cup of raw cremini mushrooms has only 16 calories. This type of mushroom may protect against cardiovascular disease. Additionally, creminis have a compound that may help protect against hormone-dependent breast cancer in women.
In comparison, shiitake mushrooms have a relatively high amount of copper. This mineral is found throughout the body and is responsible for keeping nerve cells and the immune system healthy. It also plays a role in forming collagen, which is critical to bones and connective tissue, and helps the body absorb iron. Copper may also serve as an antioxidant that helps the body rid itself of free radicals that damage the cells and DNA.
The challenge becomes picking and then storing mushrooms to optimize nutrition. The most nutritious mushrooms are firm, dry and unbruised. Therefore, you should avoid mushrooms that are slimy or withered. Mushrooms can be stored unwashed and untrimmed in the original container or in a paper bag for up to one week in the refrigerator. Only wash and trim mushrooms when you’re ready to use them. When you cook with mushrooms, you tend to lose their water, which in turn concentrates the nutrients and calories.
I can’t wait to share the news with my brother and to continue to look for novel ways to include mushrooms in my diet! Enjoy!
Encyclopaedia Brittannica. (2014). Mushroom.
George Mateljan Foundation. (ND). Mushrooms, crimini.
Medical News Today. (2014). What are the health benefits of mushrooms?
Nelson, J. K. (ND). Nutrition and healthy eating. Mayo Clinic.
Ohio State University Extension. (2008). Ohio Farm Bureau.
Produce for Better Health. (ND). Mushrooms: Nutrition, selection, storage.
Sung, E. (ND). A visual guide to mushrooms. Epicurious.
University of Maryland Medical Center. (2011). Copper.
Dorian Martin writes about various topics for HealthCentral, including Alzheimer’s disease, diet/exercise, menopause and lung cancer. Dorian is a health and caregiving advocate living in College Station, TX. She has a Ph.D. in educational human resource development. Dorian also founded I Start Wondering, which encourages people to embrace a life-long learning approach to aging. She teaches Sheng Zhen Gong, a form of Qigong. Follow Dorian on Twitter at @dorianmartin, Facebook or Instagram at @doriannmartin.