Are mushrooms a vegetable? Are they an herb? How do they fit into your culinary categories–as a seasoning, a minor ingredient, a side dish, or a main dish?
It’s easy to think of mushrooms as plants because they grow out of the ground on stems, but mushrooms aren’t plants–or animals. They’re part of kingdom Fungi, which includes about 144,000 species–only some of which are safe to eat!
We all know it’s dangerous to eat mushrooms you found in the wild if you aren’t absolutely sure what kind they are . . . but if you’ve never tried any mushrooms other than the little white ones sold in the supermarket, you’re missing out on a whole kingdom of nutrition and flavor!
Grown year-round, mushrooms continue to be affordable when summer veggies have gotten more expensive. I live in Pennsylvania, where more than half of America’s mushrooms are grown, so they are traveling an environmentally-friendly distance to get to me! My family eats mushrooms almost every week, working them into lots of different meals. Some people even drink their mushrooms in coffee! (Check out this Four Sigmatic Review.)
Health Benefits of Mushrooms
Have you always assumed that because the dark green and yellow vegetables are so vitamin-packed, pale mushrooms must be nearly empty of nutrition? I know I thought so!
Well, color isn’t everything. Fungal foods are filled with vitamins, minerals, and rare antioxidants that can help us thrive!
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or nutritionist. My profession is data management for research studies, so I’ve read a lot of scientific papers (and written some) and I know how a research study should be properly conducted. I’ve done my best to report accurately on what science has shown about mushrooms, but I am not qualified to give official medical advice.
Mushrooms are a Source of Cancer-Fighting Antioxidants
All varieties of edible mushrooms contain antioxidants, chemicals that repair damage in our bodies to help us recover from illness and injury, as well as to fight off cancer and contagious illnesses. Most fruits and vegetables, eggs, and some meats also contain antioxidants, but the specific ones vary from food to food.
Mushrooms are the best dietary source of two antioxidants: ergothioneine and glutathione. Ergothioneine, found only in fungi, may be what makes mushrooms a healthy-mind food that appears to reduce the risk of cognitive decline as our brains age.
Budget-Friendly and Highly Nutritious!
Mushrooms have lots of other nutrients, too, and the good news is that you don’t have to spend lots of money on exotic varieties: The ordinary white button mushrooms sold in supermarkets have a great nutritional profile!
Shiitake mushrooms, known for their intense savory flavor, have more fiber, choline, manganese, and Vitamin B6 than white or portobello mushrooms but are lower in other nutrients. My local supermarket sells shiitake mushrooms at a very reasonable price–$4.99 a pound, which is less per ounce than the pre-sliced white mushrooms in a plastic-wrapped plastic box.
Buying loose mushrooms in your reusable bag usually costs less than buying them in packages, as well as being better for our environment and allowing you to get the exact amount of mushrooms you want.
Although raw mushrooms are a healthy food and very low in calories, all of our common culinary mushrooms increase in vitamin, mineral, protein, and fiber content when they’re cooked, ideally stir-fried or grilled. Cooking makes mushrooms more digestible so their nutrients are better absorbed by our bodies.
Portobella or crimini mushrooms have more protein than white mushrooms–over 5 grams per cup. While they’re not as protein-dense as meat, eggs, milk, or beans, mushrooms combine well with any of those or with plant protein sources like brown rice, potatoes, pasta, or peas–creating a meal with plenty of protein and a variety of amino acids.
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Vitamins D and B: Rockstars in Mushrooms
Mushrooms are the only non-animal source of Vitamin D, which has a number of useful roles in bone strength, immune function, and pain management. Humans need Vitamin D and often have trouble getting enough, especially during the winter.
Sun-dried mushrooms contain hundreds of times more Vitamin D than mushrooms kept in the dark. Just like people and animals, fungi make their own Vitamin D when exposed to ultraviolet light–and mushrooms can do it long after harvest. Simply spread them out in the sunshine for a while before preparing your meal.
Many of the B vitamins are abundant in mushrooms:
- Riboflavin supports the circulatory system and balances homocysteine levels in our blood. It can reduce the frequency and pain of migraines.
- Niacin helps to control blood cholesterol and triglycerides and prevents hardening of the arteries.
- Folate supports DNA repair, helping our cells resist cancer and age-related deterioration. It’s also important for expectant mothers to get enough folate to prevent birth defects.
- Vitamin B6 helps in protein metabolism, immune function, and many other body processes. Its effect on neurotransmitters makes it useful in controlling depression, premenstrual syndrome, and migraines.
Mushrooms May Help Digestion, Cholesterol, and Blood Pressure
Fiber is great for your digestive tract. A cup of stir-fried white mushrooms has 2 grams of fiber, while a cup of grilled portobello or shiitake has 3 grams–as much fiber as a typical slice of whole-wheat bread.
Beta-glucans, a type of fiber found in many mushrooms, may improve cholesterol levels and allergies. However, consuming a large amount of beta-glucans may be dangerous for people with auto-immune disorders such as asthma, lupus, or multiple sclerosis. Note from Katie: I’m even looking into beta-glucan supplements for my kids’ dust allergies!
Blood pressure issues? Mushrooms are high in potassium and low in sodium. Most people get plenty of sodium from processed foods and/or seasoning food with salt–but many Americans don’t eat enough potassium. (However, excess potassium is dangerous if you have kidney problems.)
Sodium and potassium work together to regulate blood pressure and heart rate. Not only does maintaining a healthy blood pressure reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke, but potassium moves nutrients into your cells and takes wastes out. Potassium prevents muscle cramps and improves nerve function. Maintaining a correct sodium-potassium balance helps you absorb calcium to prevent osteoporosis.
Many Minerals in Mushrooms
Selenium is found in mushrooms–21% of the Daily Value of selenium in 1 cup of white mushrooms!–but is scarce in plant-based foods. Selenium is an antioxidant important to maintaining a healthy metabolism.
Copper helps our bodies form red blood cells and maintain the circulatory system. It also helps us absorb iron from food. Mushrooms contain some iron, though not a lot–try sautéeing them with dark green leafy vegetables for a delicious, iron-rich meal!
Shiitake mushrooms contain 10% of the Daily Value of manganese, an antioxidant that protects mitochondria in every cell of our bodies and also helps with wound healing and bone health. Other mushrooms have smaller amounts of manganese.
Not a huge fan of eggs? Mushrooms are an alternative source of the important nutrient choline, which helps with sleep, muscle movement, learning, and memory. (It’s not a mineral or a vitamin; it’s a micronutrient.)
Choline also assists in maintaining the structure of cellular membranes, aids in the transmission of nerve impulses, supports proper fat absorption and reduces chronic inflammation. A large study found that almost 90% of Americans don’t get enough choline! Portobella and shiitake mushrooms have even more choline than white mushrooms.
These are just some of the nutrients found in mushrooms–and they’re low-calorie and cholesterol-free, so you can sauté them in butter or oil as part of your moderate, balanced diet!
Are Mushrooms a Superfood for Plant-Based Diets?
Well, first of all, let’s remember that while mushrooms are not animals, they’re also not plants. Fungi are in their own kingdom of life forms. (By the way, yeast is not a plant, either.) If your goal is a plant-based but not a plants-only diet, mushrooms could play a role in giving you some of the nutrients you can’t get from plants, notably Vitamin D and choline.
However, mushrooms are relatively low in protein, iron, and calcium compared to animal foods–meat, eggs, and dairy. There are plant sources of all of those nutrients, but it can be difficult to get enough on a vegan diet completely free of animal foods. Vitamin B12, a crucial companion to iron in preventing anemia, is found only in animals and single-celled creatures, not in fungus or plants.
Mushrooms have unique, savory flavors different from any plant or animal. They add umami to meals without adding cholesterol, sodium, or sugar. We don’t need to add MSG and MSG mimickers that can harm our brains, just to enhance flavor!!
Mushrooms are a locally-grown, affordable food with low environmental impact, especially if you buy them without packaging. Although they’re not a perfect meat substitute, they’re a great source of nutrients and flavor to combine with other foods in a balanced diet.
Mushrooms also are great at filling in when you reduce meat in your meals. If you’ve been eating a lot of meat, replacing some of it with mushrooms could be a really good move. One option is to mix meat and mushrooms so that you eat less meat without making a totally meatless meal.
The James Beard Foundation Blended Burger Project invites chefs to compete at making the best meat+mushroom burger, to fight climate change by reducing the land, water, and air pollution involved in making burgers. Even Sonic Drive-in is offering a 25% mushroom burger!
Here are some great recipes for making mushrooms part of your menu.
The Magic of Mushrooms in Meals
Simply slicing some mushrooms and browning them in olive oil or butter creates a delicious main dish or topping. Try this basic sauté as an accompaniment for vegetables, potato, rice, pasta, fish, or eggs. Add garlic, onion, and/or herbs for more great flavor. Mushrooms enhance any meal!
Mushrooms add even more nutrition and umami to sunflower pasta salad! Just sauté them in the olive oil along with the onions and herbs.
This mushroom sauce/gravy is delicious over a baked potato, cauliflower, rice–or even a bowl of raw spinach or arugula! Spoon the warm sauce onto raw greens to steam them lightly. Here’s a different mushroom gravy that’s easily made gluten-free and vegan.
Nutshroom burgers use mushrooms, , peanut butter, and black beans to make a nice protein patty with flavor and texture that captures everything I like about ground beef, without the gristle and grease I don’t like! These are egg-free, dairy-free, and easily made gluten-free. Make them smaller to use in place of meatballs or as hand-held “nuggets” for appetizers or kids’ lunches.
Another burger alternative is a whole portobello mushroom cap, grilled or pan-fried in olive oil with perhaps a sprinkling of salt, pepper, and/or garlic.
Use mushrooms to top a pizza…or a flexican cornbread pizza! You might want to pre-cook them with some garlic, or just sprinkle them raw on the pizza, depending on the consistency you want them to have after baking.
Include mushrooms in the marinara sauce for your pizza or pasta. Even if you’re using pasta sauce from a jar, you can brown some mushrooms in the pot first, then add the sauce and heat it–tastes like homemade!
Tetrazzini is a delicious, creamy casserole featuring mushrooms. It’s perfect for using up leftover odds and ends of vegetables, meat or fish, and cheese!
This creamy mushroom pasta is cheap, easy, and quick–perfect for a busy day! It’s vegan and has no flour in the sauce, so with gluten-free pasta, it’s an easy GF meal.
Shiitake mushrooms combined with kombu seaweed make a delicious broth–very high in iodine, which helps your body manage hormones–as a base for soups. Try it in place of fish broth in udon noodle soup!
You can make your own cream-of-mushroom soup instead of eating the stuff from the can with all its “modified food starch” and whatnot! I like the recipe from the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook, and here’s one from Don’t Waste the Crumbs.
Polish mushroom soup is a tasty alternative to the usual cream soup, with vegetables and herbs adding vitamins.
Bi bim bop is a Korean meal of many toppings over rice. The Wanderlust Kitchen’s recipe includes mushrooms simply stir-fried in oil, and they are delicious! My family loves this bi bim bop recipe, written in a nicely organized structure that makes it easy to see what ingredients you need for each component. It’s not as complicated or time-consuming as you’d think when you simply make one topping at a time because each one cooks for just a few minutes or not at all.
Take your mushrooms and veggies in more of a Thai direction with a coconut curry sauce! When I have time, I like to make my own sauce using red lentils for extra nutrition and a medley of roasted vegetables. On busier days, I’ll use curry sauce from a jar–but some are better than others!
You might think of fried rice as a side dish, but it can easily become a full meal when you mix in mushrooms, veggies, egg, and maybe some leftover meat or tofu.
Remember, cooking mushrooms improves their nutritional value, and even ordinary supermarket varieties are rich in antioxidants, B vitamins, choline, and potassium. They add protein, fiber, and Vitamin D to your healthy diet. I’m excited to learn that setting mushrooms out in the sun for a while before cooking increases Vitamin D!