By Benjamin Goodin
Deep in the mountains of Oregon, a giant lurks. Older than many human civilizations, the massive being is the largest living organism on Earth, bigger than 1,665 football fields put together. Why isn’t there photographic evidence of this behemoth, you ask? Well, because it is mostly underground. The Humongous Fungus, as it is playfully named, is a fungal mat that permeates a 2.4 mile radius in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. Every cap and stalk that protrudes from fallen trees or springs from the earth in that region is a genetic clone of an organism that started as cottony, underground webbing. Every one of the enormous honey fungus’ individual mushrooms is interconnected through a fibrous, underground network. The sprawling strands make it one very complex being whose connected parts not only share genetics, but information and nutrition throughout all linked parts.
Despite confusion, mushrooms are not vegetables. They’re not even plants. They are fungi: a part of the same family of organisms that turns those forgotten leftovers in the back of the fridge into fluffy, yet somehow slimy, mush. If you’re really struggling to figure out why fungus needs its own classification, think about what they eat. Much like humans, they “digest” other organisms for nutrition — they don’t photosynthesize sunlight. They resemble plants, but mushrooms aren’t even built of the same cells as plants — their fibrous, sometimes spongy texture comes from chitin, the same substance that insects and crabs make their outer shells out of (plants get their structure from cellulose in their cell walls).
Even though the fungi kingdom contains nearly 100,000 organisms, there are really only a few that we want to put in our mouths. Mostly, it’s mushrooms we find appetizing (but we still love you, yeast). Even among mushrooms, there are only a few that we want to, or should, eat —button, cremini, shitake, morel, oyster, what have you. Generally speaking, don’t eat mushrooms you find in your yard, the forest, or a pasture. Even if it looks appetizing, let the grocers sort it out for you.
Mushrooms, even more so than plants, are products of their environment. Since they readily absorb nutrients from their surroundings, fungi are just as apt to absorb chemicals and pesticides as they are nutrients — make sure that mushrooms that you purchase are organically cultivated. Among the many edible members of the fungi kingdom there are equally diverse nutritional profiles, but there are some general properties that they share that make mushrooms a fantastic choice for taste and nutrition.
Because of the down and dirty nature of what mushrooms do in breaking down organic material, they often grow in less than sterile conditions. In lieu of an internal digestive organ like our bacteria-laden gut and lacking complex immune system, they have developed antibacterial and antimicrobial properties to protect themselves —benefits we can reap. Fungi have been used for thousands of years in Eastern medicine, and more contemporarily in some of our most powerful and broadly useful antibiotics — penicillin, tetracycline— and in anti-cholesterol, statin medications.
The “fruit” of fungal mats, mushrooms are one of the rare completely lean proteins: no fat, no cholesterol, very few calories, very high protein content per calorie, minute levels of sodium, and low on carbs — with that carbohydrate profile balanced between sugar and fiber.
The nutrient density of mushrooms rivals that of all but the richest fruits and vegetables, making them an incredibly efficient and health-conscious method of supplying your body with good nutrition. Specifically, mushrooms as a whole tend to be rich in B vitamins, copper, and selenium. B-complex vitamins are renowned for their metabolism-boosting properties. Broadly, B vitamins are efficient at rapidly making the energy stored in food accessible to our bodies, and they promote healthy adrenal function. Selenium is a bit like the superintendent to the building of your body: selenium shores up the structure of your cells against damage, keeps the thermostat of the thyroid running effectively, and makes sure the emergency sprinklers that comprise your immune system are in prime working order. Lastly, mushrooms are rich in copper. Besides having natural antioxidant properties, copper helps our cells properly utilize iron for red blood cell production, and it helps our cells create the fuel that keeps us feeling energetic. Mushrooms can be a great source of Vitamin D, but only if they are exposed to UV light. Many commercial mushroom farmers are aware of this and give their caps a sun bath shortly after harvesting to fortify their product.
Mushrooms, especially porcini, contain the highest dietary concentrations of ergothioneine and glutathione, antioxidants useful in preventing neurodegenerative conditions. Consuming mushrooms also makes the pH of the digestive and circulatory systems more alkaline, and acidic environments are known to be inhospitable to pathogens. The soluble fiber, beta-glucan is also plentiful in mushrooms, especially shiitake. Besides the normal heart-health benefits of fiber, beta-glucans significantly reduce LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), improving circulatory health. Recent research into beta-glucans has shown that their anti-inflammatory properties are also strongly indicated in arresting the growth of cancerous tumors. The organic germanium found in all mushrooms, but plentiful in shiitake and oyster caps, primes the human body to effectively utilize oxygen and comes with the added benefit of being a multi-factor propagator of stronger immune function. Adaptogens found in mushrooms, particularly the reishi variety, lower cortisol levels in the bloodstream, calming stress and its resultant circulatory and respiratory effects.
Most people are of the opinion that mushrooms are an accessory and not a main course: they’ll sprinkle them on pizzas, salads, and sometimes in pasta. Mushrooms do make great additions to all sorts of foods because they readily absorb flavors and add additional texture; some mushrooms even add a hint of their unique flavors to balance out a dish. They make excellent, healthy add-ins for stews, salads, and omelets. However, that is generally the extent of most people’s interaction with the flower of fungus. Doubtless you have seen, or at least heard a joke or two, about someone grilling outsized portabellas as a burger stand-in. Because of the hearty texture, diced mushrooms, prepared properly, make an excellent meat substitute for burgers, faux-tacos, fajitas, Salisbury “steak,” and other dishes. As long as they are washed, the mushrooms that you find in the market are edible raw, but the texture of a cooked mushroom may appeal more than the raw variety to some palates. Whatever your taste, make a little room for mushrooms in your diet.
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