Mushrooms are often considered solely for their culinary use because they are packed with flavor enhancers and have gastronomic appeal. That’s probably why they’re the second most popular pizza toppingnext to the pepperoni.
In the past, food scientists like me often praised healthy mushrooms because they do not contribute to food; they contain no cholesterol or gluten and are low in fat, sugars, sodium and calories. But that was short-selling mushrooms. They are very healthy foods and may have medicinal properties, as they are good sources of protein, B vitamins, fiber, immune-boosting sugars found in cell walls called beta-glucans, and other bioactive compounds. .
Mushrooms have been used as food and sometimes as medicine for centuries. In the past, most of the medicinal use of mushrooms was in Asian cultures, while most Americans were skeptical of the concept. However, due to changing consumer attitudes that reject the pharmaceutical approach as the only answer to healing, this appears to be changing.
I study the nutritional value of mushrooms and mushrooms, and my laboratory has conducted much research on the humble mushroom. We have discovered that mushrooms may be even healthier than previously known. They can be excellent sources of four key dietary micronutrients that are all known to be important for healthy aging. We are even investigating whether some of them could play an important role in the prevention of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
Four key nutrients
Important nutrients in mushrooms include selenium, Vitamin D, glutathione and ergothioneine. All are known to function as antioxidants that can mitigate oxidative stress and all are known to decline with aging. Oxidative stress is believed to be the main culprit of diseases of aging such as cancer, heart disease and dementia.
Ergo is produced in nature primarily by fungi, including mushrooms. Humans cannot make it, so it must be obtained from food sources. There was little scientific interest in ergo until 2005, when pharmacology professor Dirk Gründemann discovered that all mammals make a genetic code carrier which quickly shoots ergo into red blood cells. They then distribute throughout the body, where they accumulate in the tissues most subject to oxidative stress. This discovery led to a significant increase in scientific research into the possible role of ergo in human health. A study led to an eminent American scientist, Dr Solomon Snyderrecommending that ergo be considered a new vitamin.
In 2006, one of my graduate students, Joy Dubost, and I found that edible cultivated mushrooms were extremely rich sources of ergo and contained at least 10 times the level of any other food source. Thanks to the collaboration with John Ritchie and postdoctoral researcher Michael Kalaras of Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center, we showed that mushrooms are also a major dietary source of the main antioxidant in all living organisms, glutathione. No other food even comes close to mushrooms as a source of these two antioxidants.
I eat mushrooms, so I’m healthy?
Our current research is focused on evaluating the potential of ergo in mushrooms to prevent or treat neurodegenerative diseases of aging, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. We relied on several intriguing studies conducted with aging Asian populations. A study conducted in Singapore showed that as people aged, the ergo content in their blood decreased significantly, which was correlated with increased cognitive impairment.
The authors suggested that dietary ergo deficiency could predispose individuals to neurological diseases. A recent epidemiological study of more than 13,000 elderly people in Japan showed that those who ate more mushrooms had less incidence of dementia. The role of ergo consumed with mushrooms has not been assessed, but the Japanese are known to be heavy consumers of mushrooms that contain high amounts of ergo.
More ergonomics, better health?
An important question that has always demanded an answer is the amount of ergo consumed in the human diet. A study 2016 was conducted to try to estimate the average consumption of ergo in five different countries. I used their data to calculate the estimated amount of ergo consumed per day by an average 150-pound person and found that it ranged from 1.1 in the United States to 4.6 milligrams per day in Italy.
We were then able to compare estimated ergo consumption with data on each country’s death rate from common neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. We found, in each case, a decline in mortality rates with increasing estimated ergo consumption. Of course, one cannot assume a causal relationship from such exercise, but it supports our hypothesis that it might be possible to decrease the incidence of neurological diseases by increasing the consumption of mushrooms.
If you don’t eat mushrooms, how do you get your ergo? Apparently, ergo enters the food chain other than through the consumption of fungi via soil fungi. The fungi therefore spread to plants grown in the soil and then to animals that eat the plants. It therefore depends on healthy fungal populations in agricultural soils.
This led us to wonder if ergo levels in the American diet could be affected by modern agricultural practices that may reduce fungal populations in soils. We have started a collaboration with scientists from Rodale Institute, who are leaders in the study of regenerative organic farming methods, to examine this. Preliminary experiments with oats have shown that farming practices that do not require tillage result in significantly higher levels of ergo in oats than with conventional practices, where tillage disrupts fungal populations. .
In 1928 Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin produced from a fungal contaminant in a petri dish. This discovery was instrumental in starting a medical revolution that saved countless lives from bacterial infections. Perhaps the mushrooms will be the key to a more subtle, but no less important revolution, thanks to the ergo produced by the mushrooms. Perhaps then we can respond to Hippocrates’ exhortation to “let food be your medicine”.