We’ve recently covered the nutritional superpowers of the mighty mushroom, but new studies reveal its role in preventing cancer and other diseases. (Of course, we recommend buying organic varieties to reduce your risk of exposure to pesticides.)

Mushrooms contain high amounts of beta-glucans, compounds that occur in yeast and the bran of cereal grains, says Lana Zivanovic, PhD, an associate professor of food science and technology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. These substances help keep immune cells in a state of vigilance, guarding against disease, she told attendees at the 2008 Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting.

Mushrooms contain cancer-fighting substances, adds IFT presenter Shiuan Chen, PhD, director of surgical research at the Beckman Research Institute in Duarte, Calif. His lab experiments show mushrooms’ cells contain mechanisms that suppress breast and prostate cancer cells, and he’s now preparing for clinical trials. Results should be available within a year.

Research also shows mushrooms contain ergothioneine, an antioxidant that contributes to immune support and protection of the eyes, skin, liver, kidneys and bone marrow. The substance is produced in soil and transported through the mushroom’s roots, says Joy Dubost, PhD, RD, principal nutritionist at PepsiCo. Her studies reveal stressful growing conditions can actually help mushrooms produce more antioxidants.

Finally, white button mushrooms have more protein, potassium, copper and selenium than oyster or shiitake mushrooms, says Robert Beelman, PhD, a professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Whether mushrooms will be consumed more as foods or in supplements and extractions is yet to be seen, but he foresees a rich opportunity in the marketplace.

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