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Natural Medicine: Unearthing the benefits of mushrooms Mushrooms have been consumed by humans for thousands of years. While the most commonly eaten mushroom in the United States is the white button mushroom, there are more than 14,000 varieties, though only about 3,000 are edible. They offer a wide variety of benefits, from enhancing the flavors of a meal to improving your health.
Prized for their therapeutic value, mushrooms have played an essential role in traditional Asian medicine and current research indicates mushrooms contain several anti-cancer properties. The majority of this research has been focused on the phytochemicals and antioxidants found in shiitake, maitake and reishi mushrooms. However, even the three most common mushrooms, white button, crimini and portobello, have been shown to contain these important components.
Along with their anti-cancer properties, mushrooms also boast small amounts of several vitamins and minerals. These small wonders are rich in the important minerals selenium, copper, potassium and zinc. They also provide the B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid, which help break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates so they can be used for energy. In addition to these nutritional highlights, crimini and portobello also contain trace amounts of B6 and B12. And mushrooms are the only plant food known to naturally contain high levels of vitamin D, which is important for bone health.
As the evidence surrounding the health benefits of mushrooms continues to grow, a wider variety of mushrooms are becoming available at grocery stores and farmers markets. The lush woods of the Northwest provide the perfect habitat for wild mushrooms. Sharing a similar nutritional profile as conventional mushrooms, morels, chanterelles and matsutakes can add an exotic and earthy flavor to meals. So next time you are shopping for mushrooms, try something new and remember these delectable fungi also deserve attention for their unique contributions to a healthful diet.
-- Megan Gill, dietetic intern and Debra Boutin, M.S., R.D., dietetic internship director and associate professor at Bastyr University