FoodMushrooms debunk myths: A powerhouse of nutrients and health benefits

Mushrooms debunk myths: A powerhouse of nutrients and health benefits

Mushrooms are a treasure trove of health. Despite this, there are many harmful myths circulating about them.
Mushrooms are a treasure trove of health. Despite this, there are many harmful myths circulating about them.
Images source: © Adobe Stock | Eywa

4:01 PM EDT, May 14, 2024

Mushrooms are among the most commonly cultivated fungi globally, touted for their availability throughout the year and affordability. Yet, misconceptions about their nutritional value have unfortunately hindered their adoption of healthier diet regimens.

As a major producer of cultivated mushrooms, it's surprising that domestic consumption in our region is among the lowest in the European Union. Despite the wealth of information available about mushrooms, myths abound, such as the notion that they are low in nutritional value. However, mushrooms are a source of numerous essential nutrients and contain unique compounds seldom found in other natural sources. Dietitian and psychometrician Paulina Pawicka sheds light on the truths and misconceptions surrounding mushrooms.

Why Include Mushrooms in Your Diet? "A distinct nutritional profile"

Contrary to the widespread belief that mushrooms lack nutritional value, dietitian Paulina Pawicka highlights that these fungi boast a unique composition rich in essential nutrients.

— Though often treated as vegetables, mushrooms belong to the fungi kingdom and present a distinctive nutritional profile, rich in microelements typically found in vegetables, meat, and cereals — Paulina explains. — Key nutrients include riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, copper, phosphorus, selenium, and the sulfur-containing amino acid ergothioneine, among others.

Niacin is crucial for proper nervous and hormonal function, riboflavin boosts the immune system and eye health, while pantothenic acid is key for producing protective antibodies. Copper, phosphorus, and selenium play vital roles in maintaining heart health, strong bones, and thyroid function, respectively.

Mushrooms have a unique nutritional profile.
Mushrooms have a unique nutritional profile.© Adobe Stock

Additionally, the specialist points out that mushrooms' polysaccharides support a healthy gut microbiome and may help reduce fat absorption from food. Ergothioneine, an antioxidant amino acid, is synthesized only by fungi and some microorganisms, making mushrooms an attractive nutrient source.

Mushrooms: A rich source of unique and beneficial compounds

Do mushrooms truly impact health? According to Paulina Pawicka, there's growing evidence of their health benefits, including their role in managing metabolic syndrome, bolstering immune and gastrointestinal health, and even in cancer prevention and treatment, with strong evidence supporting their effect on improving vitamin D levels.

Mushrooms can be eaten raw, however, cooking them will make them easier to digest.
Mushrooms can be eaten raw, however, cooking them will make them easier to digest.© Adobe Stock
— Evidence suggests that the most common store-bought mushrooms contribute to metabolic health, immune function, gastrointestinal well-being, and cancer prevention. Significantly, they've been shown to enhance vitamin D levels in humans — Paulina clarifies. — This is critical given the global prevalence of vitamin D deficiency, including prevalent cases in Poland.

Mushrooms naturally produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, similar to our skin. According to Paulina, mushrooms exposed to UVB rays can help maintain serum vitamin D levels comparably to supplements. Moreover, mushrooms are one of the few vegetarian sources of vitamin B12.

Addressing Common Misconceptions: Indigestibility and Chitin

While it's true that mushrooms can be tough to digest due to chitin, this doesn't make them toxic. Like cellulose in plants, chitin is a form of dietary fiber that passes almost undigested, supporting intestinal health and prolonging satiety.

Mushrooms, unless there are health contraindications, should become a permanent part of every diet.
Mushrooms, unless there are health contraindications, should become a permanent part of every diet.© Adobe Stock
— Chitin, like cellulose, is a carbohydrate we can't digest, so it's considered dietary fiber — Paulina explains. — While fiber-rich foods can be less digestible, their benefits include cleansing the digestive tract and providing a longer feeling of fullness.

Paulina remarks that while some fibrous foods might cause discomfort for certain individuals, this doesn't mean mushrooms are undigestible. Yet, individuals with specific ailments should avoid them to prevent exacerbating symptoms.

Raw Mushrooms: To Eat or Not to Eat?

While eating raw mushrooms isn't inherently harmful, their digestibility does improve with cooking. Paulina advises precooking mushrooms to reduce potential GI discomfort, recommending steaming, boiling, or baking as the healthiest preparation methods.

— Raw mushrooms aren't toxic, but cooking them can lessen gastrointestinal discomfort. For healthful cooking, opt for steaming, boiling, or baking, which minimizes the formation of harmful substances — Paulina suggests.

Paulina notes that lightly frying mushrooms can be beneficial, especially for preserving vitamin D content. Including mushrooms in your diet, even just a tiny serving daily is advocated for its health benefits, provided your health permits it. For those with mild gastrointestinal issues, starting with small amounts and gradually increasing the intake is recommended.

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