Mushrooms are umami bombs, which is reason enough to incorporate them into your cooking. Dried or fresh, they bring a boost of savouriness (a.k.a. the fifth taste). But packed with dozens of vitamins and minerals, it’s their nutritional status that’s putting the spotlight on them.
Medicinal mushrooms – such as chaga, lion’s mane, and reishi – are increasingly appearing in broths, beverages, and body care products. The tendency toward functional mushrooms has led Whole Foods and other experts to list them as one of the year’s biggest food trends.
Long used in traditional medicine, some specialty coffee shops are now adding mushroom powder to lattes – it reportedly tastes “a bit naturey” – and blending various fungi with roasted coffee beans. Gwyneth Paltrow – purveyor of “unproven treatments” such as coffee enemas – is known to add two tablespoons of vanilla mushroom protein powder to her morning smoothie.Nutritional qualities vary by mushroom type and means of cultivation, according to Robert Beelman, professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University. The ubiquitous button mushroom, for example, contains high levels of selenium and potassium. But in a 2017 study, Beelman found that speciality varieties such as shiitake, porcini and grey and yellow oyster have exceptionally high concentrations of antioxidants ergothioneine and glutathione.
“We have discovered that mushrooms may be even better for health than previously known,” he writes on Salon. “They can be excellent sources of four key dietary micronutrients that are all known to be important to healthy aging. We are even looking into whether some of these could be important in preventing Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Despite Beelman’s promising findings, other members of the scientific community warn that more evidence of the health benefits of mushrooms is needed – particularly when it comes to medicinal mushrooms.
Take chaga, which is commonly used in tinctures and teas. Purported to “support cellular regeneration” and be “important for liver cleansing,” as reported by HuffPost, and “keep skin youthful” according to MindBodyGreen, a Self magazine examination “couldn’t find a single study in which researchers gave chaga to human beings for any reason, let alone to determine if the fungus slows down aging in the skin.”
The worldwide mushroom market is expected to expand to more than US$50 billion by 2023, business and finance news site Born2Invest reports. And sales of foods containing medicinal mushrooms have surged by as much 800 per cent year-on-year, according to Food Navigator.
“The claims made by the medicinal mushroom industry should be treated with great skepticism,” Nicholas P. Money, professor of botany at Miami University, told Fast Company, adding that scientific proof of preventative powers and healing properties is necessary. “We should be very wary when we read about the seemingly miraculous properties of lingzhi, lion’s mane, turkey tail, chaga, and other fungi.”