Although in some ways mushrooms resemble plants they are not actually related. In fact, they may be more closely related to animals than plants. They diverged from other living organisms about 1.5 billion years ago and now exist in their own Kingdom, Fungi.
A diverse group of organisms, fungi range from singled celled yeasts, to powdery mould to mushrooms the size of dinner plates. Amazingly, an individual colony can cover an area of up to 37 acres, weigh 95 tonnes and be as old as 1500 years.
Fungi are an important part of the ecosystem and help to decompose fallen organic matter. They are the ultimate recyclers. By decomposing wood, they release vital nutrients back into the environment. All life on earth is reliant on fungi to recycle these building blocks for survival.
Mushrooms are the fruiting body of certain types of fungi. Some species fruit above the ground while others, such as truffles, fruit below the surface of the soil. They can have gills or a spongy structure under their cap which release spores, the fungal equivalent of seeds, into the wind. Fungal spores have been known to float around the globe and pop up on other continents from where they originated.
In this article, we will explore the amazing health benefits of consuming fungi, either as an ingredient in a recipe or as a medicinal supplement. But first, let’s start with a warning of the downsides.
A word of warning
With mushroom foraging increasing in popularity in many countries, it is very tempting to grab a basket after those first rains of Autumn and pick your own. Unless you are a mycologist (someone who studies fungi for a living) or you know someone who is, it’s not recommended that you forage for mushrooms in the wild.
Many people are poisoned every year and even die from eating toxic varieties. Around three people per year die from eating toxic mushrooms in the US and nearly 40 people experience major harm by unintentionally ingesting them. The death cap mushroom can look similar to other edible varieties and is responsible for around 90 percent of all mushroom related deaths in Australia.
Some mushrooms are not toxic until you drink a glass of wine with your meal. The common inkcap, found in Europe, North America and Australia, is one such fungi. They contain a toxin that is activated by alcohol, which can occur up to 72 hours after ingestion.
Even common button mushrooms that we buy in the supermarket contain trace amounts of a toxin, agaritine, which can be carcinogenic. This toxin is mostly broken down with cooking or freezing. Therefore, to be safe, mushrooms should be cooked and never eaten raw.
The health benefits of eating mushrooms
While recognising the dangers of eating the wrong types of mushrooms, many have incredible health benefits which make them an important food to include in your diet. Below is a list of some mind-blowing facts about consuming mushrooms.
Prebiotics for our gut – Mushrooms contain important carbohydrates that stimulate growth and increase the diversity of beneficial gut microbes, which has a positive impact on our overall health.
Powerhouses of nutrition – Mushrooms are high in protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants while being low in calories. They are cholesterol-free, can play a role in weight loss and may be beneficial for diabetics. Vitamin D is also present in mushrooms, which helps support immunity.
Cancer fighting properties – Studies have shown that incorporating any variety of mushroom into our diets can help to modulate our immune system. Mushrooms contain ergothioneine, a potent antioxidant, which may help prevent oxidative stress and lower the risk of cancer. Not only can they be used in cancer prevention but also as a novel therapy that may improve cancer treatment and patient survival. A medicinal mushroom, called a Turkey Tail, may even help destroy tumours.
Longevity connection – Reishi mushrooms may contribute to longer life spans and have been used medicinally since around 100 B.C. They may have powerful anti-aging effects through anti-oxidation, immunomodulation and anti-neurodegeneration properties. There are limited human studies in this area, but this will no doubt change as reishi grows in popularity.
Buy mushrooms from an urban farm
As the health benefits of consuming mushrooms become more widely known, more and more mushroom farms are popping up. Some of these are small-scale, but many urban farms are expanding due to an increasing demand for exotic varieties.
Some local producers sell their mushrooms directly from the urban farm or at local farmers’ markets. Buying direct from the producer often means that the mushrooms have a lower ecological footprint as they haven’t been shipped from other parts of the world. Fewer food miles means better quality produce with a higher nutrient density.
If you can’t locate a local grower, how about growing your own? Many home kits can be purchased from garden centres or online and they can produce exotic mushrooms within weeks. Some mushroom enthusiasts are even offering courses where you can learn the art of growing fungi to produce your own at home.
Adam, from Westside Mushies, is horrified that the mushrooms sold in supermarkets are imported from overseas, are usually weeks old and of terrible quality. He began his business growing mushrooms sustainably in his urban backyard 18 months ago and he now supplies much of South Australia’s restaurant trade with his beautiful, colourful specimens. From pink and yellow oyster mushrooms, to black King Oysters, he’s producing huge amounts of food in a small amount of space. He’s now expanding into a larger location and offering ‘grow mushies at home’ courses for anyone wanting to learn more.
Just eat more mushrooms
It’s easy to incorporate mushrooms into your daily diet. Studies have shown that just half a cup of mushrooms can provide great health benefits. They offer a meaty substitute in pasta sauces, can be sauteed and served on toast or tossed in a stir-fry. There have even been desserts made with mushrooms!
In order to live long and healthy lives, most of us know that we need to eat mostly plants. By incorporating fungi into the mix, we may not only increase our life span but we can potentially avoid chronic illness along the way. So eat more mushrooms!