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The idea of “food as medicine” may be a bit hard to swallow, especially if you have a gourmand’s palate. What if you could fight a host of diseases and even increase your longevity, just by adding a few delicious servings of fungus to your diet every day?
Paul Stamets, renowned mycologist (that’s a mushroom expert) and TedTalk favorite, fervently believes that mushrooms can save the world. He describes fungi as “the grand molecular disassemblers of nature” due to their transformative ability to generate humus soils from decomposing organic materials. Fungi turn the decay of nature into nutrients for plants, trees, animals, and humans alike. As part of this amazing dance of biosynthesis, mushrooms alchemize Earth’s most powerful elements for the benefit of mankind. Fungi produce our best antibiotics, and have medicinal potential for a host of diseases. Certain varieties of mushroom possess psychotropic properties that have been prized since at least the beginning of recorded time, with some scientists even proclaiming that “magic mushrooms” are the key to human evolution. But these beneficial attributes merely scratch the surface of what the fungi kingdom are up to, which is apt, since most of fungi’s prolific activities take place below where our eyes can see.
The fungi kingdom represents a distinct type of organism, separate from animals, plants, and bacteria. Like animals, fungi absorb nutrients from the environment and excrete digestive enzymes, in the case of mushrooms, into the surrounding soil. Mycelium are the unseen part of mushrooms that extend below the soil. Strongly resembling neural networks, thread-like roots known as hyphae can extend for miles into the Earth, absorbing nutrients and decomposing organic materials. In his book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Paul Stamets established his belief that mycelia are the “neurological network of nature.” Intrinsically aware of their host’s needs, Paul believes mushrooms are sentient, “devising diverse enzymatic and chemical responses to complex challenges” perceived in their environment. Beyond sentience, Paul explains that mushrooms possess a co-creative consciousness, and it would benefit humanity greatly to learn how to interface: “Because these externalized neurological nets sense any impression upon them, from footsteps to falling tree branches, they could relay enormous amounts of data regarding the movements of all organisms through the landscape."
Paul’s recently published research explores another fundamental way in which fungi communicate with humanity: through our digestive systems. Mushrooms are prebiotic, boosting the microbiome’s beneficial bacteria, such as Acidophilus and Bifidobacterium, improving digestion and overall health. Recent independent research shows that certain varieties of mushroom are also our best dietary sources for potent antioxidants, such as sulfur-rich ergothioneine, and the “major biological antioxidant,” glutathione. A diet rich in antioxidants like ergothioneine and glutathione protects cells from free radicals, helping the body withstand normal oxidative stress that damages healthy cells. In addition to boosting longevity, mushrooms pack a serious nutritional punch, providing a great source of vitamin D, essential for strong immune system function.
Adding almost any type of edible mushroom to your diet will provide a healthy dose of nutrients, but there are some mushrooms that stand out from the rest. A recent study conducted at The Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine tested eleven species of mushroom to determine which varieties possessed the strongest antioxidant properties. Of the 11 species tested, the top 7 mushrooms with the strongest antioxidant constituents are also some of the most nutritionally dense. According to this latest research, these are the 7 mushrooms we should be eating, ranked in order:
Porcini are a large mushroom, with a cap that can reach up to 12 inches in diameter. Popular in Italian cuisine, porcini mushrooms represent a few different varieties, are typically reddish-brown in color, possess a thick stem, and are slightly sticky to the touch. This species of mushroom fruits from summer to fall, so you can find them most of the year in specialty markets. If you’re a forager, search for porcini mushrooms in the mulchy undergrowth of hardwood forests with pine, chestnut, hemlock, and spruce trees.
2. Golden Oyster
Golden Oyster mushrooms are typically cultivated rather than wild-harvested, making them a great mushroom to grow at home. They grow in virtually anything, using straw mats and ordinary compost, with mushroom “starters” from inoculation kits that can be purchased in specialty stores. They possess a golden hue, grow in clusters, and have a nutty, slightly bitter flavor.
Pioppino mushrooms, often called Velvet Pioppino due to the velvety-brown appearance of their small caps, grow on decaying logs or at the mulchy base of hardwood trees. Pioppinos have a mild, slightly peppery flavor, making them a popular choice for adding to recipes. They grow in clusters on long, sturdy stems, are smaller in size (caps are only about 2 centimeters wide), and retain a firm texture when cooked.
Oysters are among the most common and versatile mushrooms. Easy to cultivate, oysters grow mainly on decaying wood and possess a slightly sweet, anise-like smell. Called “oysters” due to having a similar appearance to the sea creature, the mycelia of oyster mushrooms eat small roundworms and bacteria, making them one of the few carnivorous mushroom species. Colors range from green, to pink, to yellow, depending on the variety. Fluted caps span from two-to-eight inches, with white gills on the underside, and a short, stubby stem.
5. Lions mane
It’s easy to see how the Lion’s Mane mushroom got its name! This popular edible and medicinal mushroom has exceptional neuroprotective powers, thanks to its ability to stimulate synthesis of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). NGF is a protein that plays a major role in the maintenance, survival, and regeneration of neurons in the central and peripheral nervous systems. Known to improve memory and mood, Lion’s Mane mushrooms are a staple in traditional Chinese medicine, and can be found in supplement form as a powder or tincture in many health food stores. If you’d rather enjoy their meaty texture in a meal, sauté them in butter to intensify the flavor, or boil them as a meat replacement in soup or stew.
Found in clusters, typically at the base of oak trees, maitake mushrooms have potent anti-cancer properties. A polypore mushroom, maitakes lack the distinctive gills on the underside of the cap. Multiple caps emerge in layers from a single, thick underground stem, and can grow quite large. The entire “fruit body” can weigh 50 pounds or more, with a single cap growing as wide as twelve inches in diameter. Caps range from white to brown, are semi-firm when cooked, and possess a slightly earthy flavor that takes on the taste of your chosen cooking medium. Maitakes have been researched for a variety of health benefits, including lowering cholesterol and blood glucose in rats.
Shiitake mushrooms are one of the most popular mushrooms in the world, and for good reason. Revered in Asia for centuries for their potent medicinal properties, shiitake mushrooms have become a symbol of longevity in some cultures. Hearty and versatile, shiitakes can be consumed raw or cooked, and are found in powdered supplement form in many herbal pharmacies. Shiitakes grow in clusters on decaying hardwood trees, and are also commonly cultivated for food and medicinal uses. A classic umbrella shape, shiitakes are both beautiful and substantial. Caps range from white to light brown with white spots, and can reach up to eight inches in diameter. Cooking releases a “garlic pine” aroma and a rich, earthy flavor. Good luck for us - shiitakes are available year-round in most areas.
For additional research on the health benefits of mushrooms, visit our database on the subject.
2. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (Stamets, Paul, 2005, ISBN 1-58008-579-2)
Originally published: 2017-12-05
Article updated: 2019-2-16