Quick question: mushrooms are vegetables, right?
We find mushrooms in the produce section of the grocery store and the USDA includes mushrooms in the list of vegetable choices, but technically, mushrooms are fungi. Yet who wants to eat a fungus?
Well, it turns out that mushrooms are great for you and well worth overcoming any heebie-jeebies at the "fungus" label. In fact, mushrooms are packed with nutrients to support a healthy life and they add flavor and texture to a variety of recipes.
People have been searching for and eating mushrooms for a very long time. The ancient Greeks believed that mushrooms provided strength to warriors, while the Romans called mushrooms the "Food of the Gods," and mushrooms continue to play an important role in Chinese medicine.
There are more than 2,000 different species of mushrooms with only about 25 species widely enjoyed as part of our food choices. Mushroom varieties most familiar to U.S. consumers are the white button mushroom (the most commonly consumed mushroom in the world), cremini, portobello, shiitake, straw, oyster, and enoki. Seasonal species such as morels and chanterelles are also popular.
All mushrooms are low in calories, carbohydrate, fat, and sodium. They contain no cholesterol and are good sources of several vitamins and minerals. A half cup of white button mushrooms contains 20 calories, 2 grams of protein, 0 grams of fat, 3 grams of carbohydrate, and 1 gram of fiber.
Important Nutrients Found in Mushrooms:
- Vitamin D: All mushrooms contain the vitamin D precursor ergosterol, although the vitamin D content that is absorbed by humans varies on exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. Conversion of ergosterol to vitamin D ranges from several minutes to a few hours for sunlight versus seconds to several minutes when commercially exposed to UV light. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin found naturally in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel, and is also added to milk and milk alternatives like soy or almond milk. Vitamin D is crucial for calcium absorption and bone density and also plays an important role in our immune function and reducing inflammation. Check the Nutrition Facts labels on mushrooms and you’ll find many contain 100% of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin D. It’s possible to increase the amount of vitamin D in mushrooms at home by at least 25% by exposing them to sunlight for at least 15 minutes on a clear or partly cloudy day between 9:30am and 3:30pm.
- Antioxidants: Mushrooms are an excellent source of antioxidants, compounds in foods that help protect our body against oxidative stress that is associated with aging and chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, and some types of dementia. A research team from Penn State found that mushrooms are particularly high in two antioxidants: ergothioneine and glutathione. Porcini mushrooms contain more of these antioxidants than other mushrooms, but all types of mushrooms are good sources. Cooking doesn’t affect the amount or bioavailability of the two antioxidants.
- Beta-glucans: Beta-glucans are a type of fiber that plays an important role in lowering insulin resistance and cholesterol, boosting the immune system, and reducing obesity by decreasing appetite and improving a feeling of fullness when eating. Oats and barley are the most well-known sources of beta-glucans, but reishi, shiitake and maitake mushrooms are also excellent sources. One study showed that consuming these types of mushrooms helps decrease insulin resistance by approximately 25%.
Mushrooms have a meaty texture and umami or savory flavor that makes them an excellent meat substitute. A study published in the Journal of Food Science showed that a traditional ground meat recipe prepared with 50 percent mushrooms and 50 percent meat (or even 80 percent mushrooms and 20 percent meat) can decrease the calories and fat in the recipe and reduce sodium by 25% while maintaining flavor.
Mushroom Preparation and Cooking Tips:
- Purchase loose, unpackaged mushrooms so that you can inspect them for quality. Look for mushrooms that are slightly damp but not slimy or wet. A springy texture is a plus.
- Store loose mushrooms in a partially-open zipper-lock bag, which maximizes air circulation without drying out the mushrooms. Leaving the bag slightly open allows for the release of the ethylene gas emitted from the mushrooms. Don’t wrap mushrooms in a paper bag or a damp towel. This can make them spongy.
- Rinse whole mushrooms under clear, cool water right before slicing and cooking. If serving mushrooms raw, instead of rinsing (which can cause discoloration) brush away dirt lightly with a clean, soft toothbrush.
- Do not freeze fresh, uncooked mushrooms. Instead, sauté mushrooms and then freeze them in small bags to use in favorite recipes.
- For the best results, chop mushrooms to the consistency of the meat you're using in the recipe so that the mushrooms and meat are evenly mixed together.
- Sear mushrooms for a more intense roasted, charred, and smoky flavor and overall aroma.
- Roast mushrooms to get more sweet, salty, and umami tastes with caramelized, nutty, and buttery flavors.
- To roast mushrooms: preheat oven to 450°, brush mushrooms with olive oil, place in a single layer on a baking sheet, and roast for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- To microwave mushrooms: Place 8 ounces of sliced mushrooms in a microwaveable bowl. Cover and cook on 100% power for 2-3 minutes. Toss onto a hot sandwich, chili, soup or packaged meal.
- One pan cooking (great for tacos, sloppy Joes and pasta sauces): brown meat in a pan until cooked through, remove and set aside. Then, add chopped mushrooms to the same pan, sauté and return meat to the pan to complete the recipe.
- Create a mushroom base (ideal for burgers, meatballs and meatloaf): roast or sauté mushrooms ahead of time to intensify flavor and then finely chop to add to ground meat dishes.
- Use slices of portabella mushrooms in sandwiches instead of lunchmeat.
- Add your favorite mushrooms to pizza.
By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDE, CPT. CHWC
- USDA Choose My Plate.gov. All About the Vegetable Group. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/vegetables updated 7-18-19, accessed 9-17-19
- The Mushroom Council. Mushroom Nutrition. https://www.mushroomcouncil.com/nutrition-benefits/ accessed 9-15-19
- Valverde ME, Hernández-Pérez T, Paredes-López O. Edible mushrooms: improving human health and promoting quality life. Int J Microbiol. 2015;2015:376387. doi:10.1155/2015/376387
- Jo Feeney M, Miller AM, Roupas P. Mushrooms-Biologically Distinct and Nutritionally Unique: Exploring a "Third Food Kingdom". Nutr Today. 2014;49(6):301–307. doi:10.1097/NT.0000000000000063
- United States Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Research Service. USDA Branded Food Products Database. Mushrooms Whole Button. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/45286397?fgcd=&manu=&format=&count=&max=25&offset=&sort=default&order=asc&qlookup=MUSHROOMS+WHOLE+BUTTON%2C+UPC%3A+021333221757&ds=&qt=&qp=&qa=&qn=&q=&ing= last updated 7/14/2017; accessed 9/18/2019
- National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/ updated 8-7-19, accessed 9-17-19
- Michael D. Kalaras, John P. Richie, Ana Calcagnotto, Robert B. Beelman. Mushrooms: A rich source of the antioxidants ergothioneine and glutathione. Food Chemistry, 2017; 233: 429 DOI: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2017.04.109
- Denise Webb. Betting on Beta-Glucans. Today’s Dietitian, 2014; vol. 16 No 5 p. 16.
- Cook’s Illustrated. Mushrooms 101: Everything You Need to Know. https://www.cooksillustrated.com/features/8349-mushrooms-101-everything-you-need-to-know accessed 9-18-19
- Fruits and Veggies for Better Health. Top 10 Ways to Enjoy Mushrooms. https://fruitsandveggies.org/stories/top-10-ways-to-enjoy-mushrooms/ accessed 9-18-19
- Myrdal Miller, A. , Mills, K. , Wong, T. , Drescher, G. , Lee, S. , Sirimuangmoon, C. , Schaefer, S. , Langstaff, S. , Minor, B. and Guinard, J. (2014), Flavor?Enhancing Properties of Mushrooms in Meat?Based Dishes in Which Sodium Has Been Reduced and Meat Has Been Partially Substituted with Mushrooms. Journal of Food Science, 79: S1795-S1804. doi:10.1111/1750-3841.12549
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.