Marvelous Mushrooms

Mushrooms seem to be left in the dark amid the focus on brightly colored vegetables. Nutritionally, mushrooms are categorized as a vegetable, even though they are technically neither plant nor animal, but in fact, fungi (which have no roots, leaves, flowers, or seeds and do not require soil or light in order to grow). Regardless of their technical category, mushrooms are nutritional powerhouses and are loaded with phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals that can be difficult to obtain from other produce.

Mushrooms surpass all other produce in selenium content. Five baby portabella mushrooms provide almost one-third of the RDA for selenium. Selenium, a powerful antioxidant, works with vitamin E to protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals. Mushrooms are also a great source of three essential B-vitamins: riboflavin, niacin, and panthothenic acid. One portabella mushroom provides nearly one-third of the RDA, and five white or baby portabella (crimini) mushrooms supply one-quarter of the riboflavin that we need each day. Moreover, they are also a source of potassium. One portabella mushroom cap can provide more potassium than a banana or an orange. High in copper, mushrooms supply one-third of our daily need for bone-building copper. Mushrooms are also a good source of folate, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron; interestingly, they provide important nutrients that are more often found in meat, milk, and cheese products, but are also extremely low in sodium, fat, and calories (only 20 for 5 medium mushrooms).

Typically, plant-based foods don’t contain vitamin D, but mushrooms are again the exception. All mushrooms contain vitamin D, but growers also have the ability to increase D levels by exposing mushrooms to ultraviolet light. Similar to humans, mushrooms naturally produce vitamin D following exposure to sunlight or a sunlamp. Exposing mushrooms to as little as five minutes of UV light can produce a significant quantity of vitamin D.

Umami is the fifth flavor, after sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Derived from the Japanese word umai, meaning “delicious,” umami (pronounced oo-MAH-mee) is described as a savory, brothy, rich, or meaty taste sensation. The more umami present in food, the more flavorful it will be.  All mushrooms are a rich source of umami, and the darker the mushroom, the more umami it contains.

Mushrooms help in our quest to cut calories, especially since the umami provides a meaty flavor, making them great substitutes for meat. According to a study done at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, adults consumed 400 fewer calories per day when they ate  lasagna, sloppy joes, and chili, with mushrooms substituted for the ground beef. Substituting mushrooms for ground meat one meal every week can add up to five pounds of weight loss in a year.

Interestingly enough, umami counterbalances saltiness and allows for less salt to be used in a meal, without compromising flavor. Using umami-rich ingredients like mushrooms instead of salt can reduce the overall amount of sodium in a dish.

Skip the butter when preparing mushrooms. Instead, toss them into a nonstick pan that’s been lightly sprayed with oil, then sauté on low heat until they soften. Cooking with mushrooms without adding butter is an effective method for reducing calorie and fat intake while still providing a sense of fullness and satiety after the meal.

Grind mushrooms up in a food processor before adding them to recipes. This will make them more palatable to children and mushroom-avoiding adults. The savory taste mixes better with the other ingredients and enhances the flavor.  Try this delicious Mexican Lentil Soup, for example. Many soups and stews taste better with the addition of mushrooms, although it’s basically undetectable. These Mushroom Croquettes (mushroom burgers) also use ground mushrooms, disguising the texture of the mushrooms, with a great taste. Kids love them, too! Try making mushroom risotto or these Portobello Mushrooms Stuffed with Spinach and Goat Cheese from Epicurious.

Mushrooms are packed with phytonutrients that help the immune system fight sickness and prevent unwanted inflammation. They’re also full of vitamins and minerals not usually found in vegetables, and this is all in addition to a wonderful, savory taste, with lots of fiber and few calories. Mushrooms should be eaten by everyone! Take January’s 2012 Healthy Challenge and eat more mushrooms!