Medicinal Mushrooms: Coming Out of the Dark (Part 3)

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Wow — I’m amazed at all the “mushroom” postings readers have made over the past two weeks. It’s great! I think most people, including myself, have underestimated the nutritional power of these little fungi, so I’m glad I’ve been able to shed some light on them.

Mushrooms and Research
Mushrooms are big in certain research circles. Here are some highlights of current and recent mushroom studies:

  • At the Experimental Biology meeting in New Orleans this past April, research was presented on the role of mushrooms in preventing breast cancer and arthritis.
  • Research has also looked at the link between mushrooms and decreased tumor growth in animals. This could potentially have implications for humans.
  • Maitake mushrooms contain grifolan, a substance that seems to activate macrophages (important components of the immune system that can destroy tumor cells) in mice who have cancer. In a small study, 165 people with cancer received either maitake or maitake combined with chemotherapy. The maitake was found to be effective against stomach and bone cancer and leukemia, and, when given along with the chemotherapy, helped reduced the unpleasant side effects of this therapy, including nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and decreased white blood cells.
  • Maitake mushrooms may benefit people with diabetes by reducing insulin resistance. Also, these mushrooms are used in Japan to lower blood pressure and blood lipid (fat) levels.
  • Shiitake mushrooms have been shown to lower cholesterol levels by up to 15%. They additionally may inhibit tumor growth and, in the lab, may block the HIV and hepatitis B viruses from replicating.
  • Reishi mushrooms, when given in syrup form, appear to improve bronchitis symptoms, and they may help people with asthma to strengthen lung function.

Mushroom Varieties
As tempting as it may be to go foraging in the woods (or your backyard) for mushrooms, my advice is to forget that idea and to instead head to your local supermarket. It takes an experienced mushroom gatherer to differentiate between mushrooms that are safe and edible and mushrooms that are harmful. Some poisonous mushrooms may cause little more than gastrointestinal distress for about 24 hours, but others, such as the Amanita and the false morel, can be deadly. Below are some of the common (and safe) mushrooms that you may want to try:

  • White button: These are the white mushrooms that are often found packaged in the store, and they account for roughly 90% of the mushrooms eaten in the United States. They keep well and are available year-round. Eat them raw in salads or sauté them and for use in pasta and pizza or on top of burgers. Their flavor will intensify when cooked.
  • Crimini: These are also known as browns or baby bellas. They’re about the size of white button mushroom but have a deeper, earthier flavor. Because of their flavor, they can be sautéed with onions to make a good side for beef dishes. They are also good chopped up and added to spaghetti sauce.
  • Portabella: Also called portobello, these mushrooms are a larger cousin of the crimini mushroom. They have a meat-like texture and flavor and are often served as a vegetarian alternative to a hamburger. They’re also good broiled, grilled, or roasted as a side dish.
  • Enoki: These mushrooms have long stems and tiny caps. They have a mild flavor and are good raw in salads or sandwiches or added to soup.
  • Shiitake: These are tan to dark brown mushrooms with umbrella-shaped caps. The stem should be removed before eating. Shiitakes have a deep, smoky flavor and are traditionally added to miso soup, but they can be added to your own soup stock. They also go well with meat dishes and stir-fries.

Choosing and Storing Mushrooms
Whatever type of mushroom you buy, choose those that are firm, dry, smooth, and plump. They’ll keep in the refrigerator for up to a week, but they don’t freeze well.

To clean the mushrooms, gently brush off any dirt with a mushroom brush or a damp paper towel. Rinse them briefly under cold water, but don’t soak them, as they’ll become soggy. Slice off the bottom of the stem before using.

For more on mushrooms, including recipes, check out the Mushroom Council’s Web site at You can also find mushroom recipes at


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