Nutrition-wise blog

Mushrooms aren't just for vegetarians

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. August 22, 2014

I was in the produce aisle of my local grocery store when a friend came up to me and showed me two containers of mushrooms. The label on one said it contained vitamin D — the label on the other did not. She asked me why.

The answer is that mushrooms, when exposed to sunlight (specifically ultraviolet B, or UVB, light) convert ergosterol (a compound found naturally in mushrooms) into an active form of vitamin D. Most commercial mushrooms are grown indoors (or in the dark). However, some growers expose mushrooms to artificial UVB. Three ounces of these UVB-exposed mushrooms can provide 100 percent of an adult's daily requirement for vitamin D.

This got me thinking about the other interesting nutritional and health benefits of mushrooms.

  • This fungus is the only food source of vitamin D — besides animal products. No other plants provide vitamin D. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans lists mushrooms as one of the best sources of vitamin D.
  • The vitamin B-12 found naturally in mushrooms is the same form found in meat.
  • Mushrooms contain a variety of bioactive compounds that are antioxidants, which offer protection from cancer and heart disease, and moderate blood sugar levels.

To me the most practical — and intriguing — effects that mushroom consumption may have is on weight management, lowering the desire for salt, and thereby improving overall quality of diet. Early studies show that substituting mushrooms for higher fat meat results in significantly fewer calories (and fat and cholesterol) consumed. There seems to be no significant differences in ratings of hunger, satiety and overall tastiness between mushroom and meat diets.

In addition, mushrooms naturally contain high amounts of glutamate (not monosodium glutamate) and ribonucleotides. These compounds are responsible for umami — the savory taste — found in food. The meaty, savory flavor that mushrooms provide has been found to be a healthy and satisfying substitute for salt. The darker the mushroom, the more umami it contains. Substitute mushrooms for meat and for salt, and you'll nudge your diet in a healthier direction.

All in all, this often overlooked fungus is a vegetarian source of nutrients typically found in animal products. In addition, the impact that the lowly mushroom has on health and overall improvement in quality of our diet could be significant. 'Shrooms for supper anyone?

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Aug. 22, 2014