Mushrooms are not vegetables, even though they are often used as such and tossed into salads. Instead, mushrooms are classified as fungi. Many types of wild mushrooms are not safe to eat due to toxins or hallucinogens, but about a half dozen varieties commonly found at Asian grocery stores are safe, tasty and nutritious. However, raw mushrooms are difficult to fully digest, especially by some people with gastrointestinal conditions, so cook them to make digestion easier and reduce the chances of any side effects.
Composition of Mushrooms
Instead of the cellulose-rich walls found in plants and vegetables, the cell walls of mushrooms are made of mycochitin -- a dense, fibrous compound that’s difficult for most people to properly digest. The digestibility of mushrooms greatly improves with cooking because the heat breaks down the fungal cell walls. In addition to better digestion, cooked mushrooms are more nutritious because more nutrients are able to be absorbed by your body. Mushrooms are good sources of protein, dietary fiber, B vitamins, vitamin D, phosphorus, potassium, copper and selenium.
Methods of Cooking
Mushrooms can be cooked in a variety of ways to improve their digestibility. Steaming is probably the best method because it preserves heat-sensitive nutrients such as vitamin C. Other efficient cooking methods include sautéing, panfrying, baking and deep-frying. Larger types of culinary mushrooms, such as maitake and shiitake, are quite meaty; you can easily cook them on a grill. Thoroughly cooking mushrooms will also destroy any compounds that could lead to mild stomach irritation and reduce the bitterness of some varieties.
Some Medicinal Properties
Digesting mushrooms more effectively also allows you to better absorb compounds that have medicinal properties. For example, maitake are delicious Japanese mushrooms containing compounds that have antiviral and immune-boosting properties. They may also help control hypertension and high blood sugar levels. Slender, white mushrooms called enoki require only brief cooking and have significant anticancer and immune-boosting effects. Cordyceps are mild-tasting Chinese mushrooms used in many Asian countries to restore health, increase energy levels and enhance endurance.
Never eat mushrooms that you come across in the wild, because some species contain toxic compounds that trigger serious gastrointestinal symptoms or even death. Wild mushrooms are sometimes sold at farmers markets or used at gourmet restaurants, but ensure that the seller is familiar with their effects. If in doubt, stick to common varieties sold at grocery stores. Some mushrooms have a long history of medicinal use, such as reishi, but are not meant for culinary purposes due to their disagreeable taste. Instead, reishi and some types of cordyceps are best consumed as supplemental capsules, tinctures or herbal teas.
- Encyclopedia of Human Nutrition; Benjamin Caballero et al.
- Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine; Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
- Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica; Dan Bensky et al.
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.