Jane Says: Mushrooms Don’t Just Taste Good—They Fight Cancer Too

The world of fungi offers nearly as many health benefits as it does different flavors.

Enoki mushrooms contain a compound called flammulin, which may have anticancer properties. (Photo: New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“I see more types of mushrooms in my local supermarket lately, and hear they have lots of health benefits. What can you tell me about them? I’m most interested in the Asian ones.”

—Malcolm Cage

I had to laugh when I opened my copy of the lavishly illustrated Book of Fungi: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species From Around the World, by Peter Roberts and Shelley Evans. “Human beings are omnivores,” I read, “and fungi have undoubtedly formed part of our diet since we first evolved.” What a fabulous segue from last week’s column. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten I promised a post on the quick evolution of lactose tolerance, but considering there are big paper sacks of aromatic shiitake and rich, forest-y maitake in my refrigerator right now, I’m psyched to write about them. And the instant I’ve finished, I’m going to cook dinner.

In general, the fungi kingdom (which includes mushrooms, mildews, molds, rusts, and smuts) has long been an important resource for traditional medicines, especially in Asia, and it’s vitally important in the modern Western pharmacy as well. Two stellar examples are penicillin, which is derived from the mold Penicillium chrysogenum, and immunosuppressive cyclosporins (used to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs), derived from Tolypocladium inflatum. In fact, modern medical researchers are studying many different mushrooms for their pharmaceutical potential. One fascinating example is the Lion’s Mane (see below), which is being studied for its neuroprotective effects in regard to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS, and other neurodegenerative diseases. The data is by no means conclusive so far, but looks promising; keep your fingers crossed.

Although mushrooms are sold in the produce department, they are not plants, but rather the fruitbodies of macroscopic fungi—that is, those visible to the naked eye. The two fungal phyla that produce mushrooms contain a total of at least 70,000 different species worldwide. How many of those are edible? According to veteran journalist and garden writer Leslie Land, that number is impossible to know. “There’s a huge difference in numbers between ‘edible’ and ‘worth eating,’ ” explained Land. “The latter group is far, far smaller than the former, and even within the ‘worth it’ group, there’s an awful lot of de gustibus.”

Mushrooms vary widely in nutritional content. In general, however, they are low in fat and high in fiber. Vegetarians, especially those who avoid grains, should know that mushrooms are relatively high in protein (from 15 to 40 percent of their dried mass); a good source of B vitamins and vitamin D; and an excellent source of selenium, a mineral that works as an antioxidant.

Preparing and Cooking Mushrooms: Many sources say you shouldn’t wash mushrooms, but guess what? Like a number of fruits and vegetables, mushrooms are 90 percent water, and a quick rinse won’t hurt. As far as cooking mushrooms goes, I think it brings out their flavor. It also helps break down their difficult-to-digest cell walls so we can absorb the nutrition within and renders harmless any heat-sensitive toxins some varieties may contain.

I first became interested in Asian mushrooms about ten years ago, when I met biologist Malcolm Clark, the Indiana Jones of the mushroom world and pioneer of shiitake cultivation in the United States. Here are some of my favorites.

Enoki: These delicate white mushrooms with very long stems and teensy caps contain a compound called flammulin, which may have anticancer properties. They are tender and mild. Before using, trim off the base and growing medium. Enoki are especially lovely lightly cooked in soups—try them in a bowl of miso with pea shoots, grated carrot, and cubes of silken tofu. If you avoid soy products, substitute the homemade broth of your choosing and (duh) skip the tofu.

Honshimeji (Bunashimeji, Clam Shell, Beech): Recent research in Japan suggests this variety, which comes in shades of white and tan, exhibits strong antioxidant and immunity-stimulating properties. Firm-fleshed with a crisp cap and crunchy stem, it has a mild shellfish-like flavor that is wonderful with wild shrimp or Pacific salmon. Trim off the thickest part of the stem, then roast them or sauté quickly in a hot pan.

Maitake (Hen of the Woods): These improbably feathery mushrooms are renowned for their anti-viral, anti-tumor, and immune-enhancing properties. But interestingly, those benefits may be more modest than previously thought, according to mycologist Bill Bakaitis, founder of the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association, consultant to the New York and New England Poison Control networks, and wild-mushroom guru for the Culinary Institute of America. In a guest post on Leslie Land’s blog (the two are married), he cites a major review of the scientific research conducted in New Zealand as well as a separate DNA study of North American and Asian specimens. All that aside, maitake have a wonderful meaty complexity. Try them sautéed and served over polenta.

Lion’s Mane (Pom Pom, Pompon Blanc): In Chinese medicine, this species has been used to treat gastrointestinal problems, some cancers, and nervous-system disorders. My limited experience is with the cultivated sort, which is round and as finely textured as a powder puff (the wild ones are much larger and much furrier), so it’s one mushroom I don’t wash. I rarely see Lion’s Mane at the market, but when I do, I pounce—it has a subtle sweetness that reminds me of artichokes—and cook it almost immediately, since it doesn’t keep well. Try cutting it into ¼-inch slices and sautéing it until pale golden and just crisp around the edges.

Shiitake: A number of mushroom species contain beta-glucans (which demonstrate immunity-stimulating effects, cancer-fighting properties, and contribute to heart health), but those in shiitake are among the most effective. When buying them, look for dappled caps with curled-under edges, which signify freshness. Although large specimens are prized in the U.S., smaller ones tend to have deeper flavor. Shiitake are one of the stars of the culinary world: Roasting intensifies their flavor, and sautéing or stir-frying turns them satiny. The stems are fibrous, so remove them and freeze for vegetable stock.

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