Mushrooms are in the news. They may contain unusually high amounts of two antioxidants that could help to fight aging and increase health, according to research done at Penn State University, which has a “Center for Plant and Mushroom Products for Health.” When we use food to produce energy, we produce “oxidative stress” as free radicals are formed. These free radicals are oxygen atoms with unpaired electrons that can cause damage to cells throughout the body. Antioxidants such as those found in mushrooms—ergothioneine and glutathione—can reduce this damage.
The amounts of these compounds vary greatly between mushroom species. Porcinis contain the highest amounts; white button mushrooms have less, but still higher amounts than most other foods. Cooking mushrooms does not significantly affect the antioxidants. Countries that have more of these antioxidants in their diet, such as France and Italy, have lower incidents of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. This could merely be a correlation, but it is worth noting. About five white button mushrooms per day would provide a level of antioxidants that could be helpful, according to Penn State researchers. Mushrooms are also good sources of vitamin D and B.
There is controversy about the safety of eating raw mushrooms because of tough cells walls and a possible toxin that disappear with cooking. I suggest cooking them first. The cooking techniques that preserve most of the benefits of mushrooms include microwaving and grilling. However you use them, mushrooms greatly enhance the flavor of your food.
Many people buy dried porcinis in bulk, or use mushroom powder to sprinkle on their food. Be exceedingly careful to check the species of mushroom you collect in the wild after a rain; many species are deadly poisonous. Consult a book and an expert.
Sadja Greenwood, a Bolinas resident, is a retired physician formerly active at the University of California, San Francisco.