Diet & Nutrition

The surprising health benefits of mushrooms

How much do we really know about the humble mushroom?
Pile of mushroomsGetty Images

We all know a diet rich in vegetables is good for us, but the superfood status of mushrooms is perhaps not so well known.

They’re a Kiwi household favourite – we love to barbecue them, roast them, add them to stir-fries and use them as a meat substitute – but how much do we really know about the humble mushroom?

According to Statistics NZ, mushrooms are New Zealand’s fourth most popular vegetable.

As well as being favoured for their delicious flavour, they’re a great sustainable option too; the mushroom industry is one of the lowest usage industries in New Zealand, meaning their water and power requirements are considerably lower than other forms of produce.

Whether you fancy portobello, shiitake, white button, Swiss brown or oyster, mushrooms are not only hearty and flavourful, but also pack a powerful vitamin and mineral punch.

They’re full of antioxidants

Far more than most fruit and vegetables, mushrooms contain a super-high concentration of antioxidants.

Known for their ability to help ward off free radicals in the body, the ergothioneine and glutathione found in mushrooms help to lower the risk of many diseases, including heart disease.

Ergothioneine is especially unique as it’s an anti-inflammatory, which humans are unable to make on their own.

The antioxidants in mushrooms also work extra hard to protect the body from physiological stress that causes visible signs of ageing. That’s right – eating mushrooms consistently could help to keep those wrinkles at bay!

Mushrooms are the only vegetable that produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. This means that a boosted mushroom intake is a great way for vegans and vegetarians to increase their daily dose of vitamin D.

Swapping your less-healthy choices for mushrooms is also a simple way to reduce calorie intake.

Considered a low energy density food, an entire cup of raw mushrooms contains only 15 calories (62kJ). Mushrooms are also low GI and low in sodium.

They reduce the risk of dementia

Mushrooms have been shown to have a possible impact on brain health – specifically, an individual’s chances of ending up with dementia.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore found that eating two or more servings of mushrooms per week lowers the chances of mild cognitive impairment.

The more mushrooms people ate, the better they performed in tests of thinking and processing.

The study’s findings, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, were based on 663 Chinese adults aged over 60, whose diet and lifestyle were tracked over a six-year period from 2011 to 2017.

Approximately nine out of 100 people who ate more than two portions a week were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, compared with 19 out of 100 among those who ate less than one portion.

This is largely credited to the previously mentioned ergothioneine in mushrooms – not only does the antioxidant protect against a number of ailments, it may also have a protective effect on the brain, the study found.

Mushrooms also contain other powerful nutrients and minerals such as spermidine, which has been shown to shield neurons from damage.

(Credit: Getty Images)

They boost energy levels

If you struggle to get up in the morning, your B group vitamins – crucial in providing us with the energy needed to bounce out of bed – might be lacking.

Mushrooms can help provide us with our daily requirement of B vitamins, and aid in reducing our tiredness and fatigue.

They also help to form red blood cells. A common issue with vegetarian and vegan diets is a deficiency of B12 and B6, often obtained from red meat.

Just a 100g serving of mushrooms will provide five out of the eight B vitamins. Mushrooms also contain selenium, potassium and phosphorus.

Kiwis tend to lack the mineral selenium, which is important for the immune system. Again, just 100g of mushrooms will provide around a third of our daily selenium requirement.

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