A Fungus With Flavor.

A go-to source of nutrition, mushrooms are small powerhouses of flavor, variety and health benefits.

by Sanna Delmonico, MS, RDN


What food is eaten on every continent and valued for its medicinal and nutritional qualities, but is neither a plant nor an animal? That’s right, it’s mushrooms. Mushrooms are fungi, more closely related to yeasts and molds than to plants.

The number of varieties of mushrooms is so great, it may never be known. Hundreds have been studied for their medicinal properties (Wasser 2014), and about 25 are used as food (Valverde, Hernandez-Perez & Paredes-Lopez 2015). Today in the United States, the familiar mushrooms are mostly limited to three: white button, shiitake and portobello.

Nutritionally, mushrooms offer fiber; protein; minerals (including potassium, copper and selenium); B vitamins (including thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and B12); pantothenic acid; and vitamins C and E. Some are high in vitamin D (O’Neil, Nicklas & Fulgoni 2013; Valverde, Hernandez-Perez & Paredes-Lopez 2015). Known as the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is produced when skin is exposed to ultraviolet light (NIH 2016). Mushrooms produce it, so wild mushrooms growing outdoors—as opposed to cultivated or “farmed” mushrooms produced indoors, in darkness—are generally good sources of vitamin D (Kohn 2016).

Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) shows that people who eat mushrooms have higher-quality diets, eat more orange and leafy green vegetables, and have higher intakes of many nutrients compared with those who don’t consume mushrooms (O’Neil, Nicklas & Fulgoni 2013). According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, mushroom consumption has been fairly stable since the mid-1980s, at just under 4 pounds per person per year (USDA 2011).

Are All Mushrooms Medicinal?

Even the humble white button mushroom found in every American supermarket has medicinal properties (Chen et al. 2006; Twardowski et al. 2015), and all kinds of mushrooms have been used medicinally for thousands of years. Practitioners of modern medicine in China, Japan, Korea and Russia routinely employ mushroom preparations (Cor, Knez & Knez Hrncic 2018; Wasser 2014). The properties of mushrooms show promise for inhibiting cancers of the breast, cervix, prostate, lung, stomach and colon (Cor, Knez & Knez Hrncic 2018; Friedman 2016). Mushrooms have been studied for their immune system–stimulating properties; their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial effects; and their roles in reducing blood lipids, cardiovascular disease risk and diabetes risk (Wasser 2014).

How much is enough? Authors who studied the effects of white-button-mushroom extracts on mouse tumors concluded that 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) per day might prevent breast tumors in humans from growing, and even less might prevent tumors from forming to begin with (Chen et al. 2006). Other researchers looked at data on mushrooms and breast cancer and found that women who consumed 20 g of mushrooms per day (less than an ounce) had significantly lower risk of cancer than women who consumed less (Li et al. 2014).

The substances in mushrooms with biological activity include phytochemicals (like polyphenols and sterols) and fatty acids, as well as glycoproteins and polysaccharides, including beta-glucans (Chen et al. 2006; Valverde, Hernandez-Perez & Paredes-Lopez 2015). Beta-glucans stimulate immunity and help explain the purported anti-tumor properties of mushrooms. The fibers in mushrooms act as prebiotics—that is, food for beneficial probiotic bacteria in the gut—and may be useful in regulating food intake as well as preventing and treating conditions of overweight and obesity (Friedman 2016). However, more research with humans is needed before we can definitively attribute some of these health effects to mushrooms.

Buying and Using Mushrooms

Look for fresh mushrooms that are firm, not dry or slimy. Mushrooms keep for about a week in the refrigerator, loosely covered, since they rot when too wet. They absorb water quickly, so before using them, try brushing them off or giving them a quick rinse, rather than soaking them in water.

A note of caution: Resist the urge to pick wild mushrooms if you’re not a mushroom expert. The consequences of misidentifying a mushroom as edible can be severe, with consumption of some varieties requiring a liver transplant or even resulting in death (Oder 2013). According to the California Poison Control System, 679 cases of wild-mushroom poisoning were reported in the state between November 2015 and October 2016 (California Department of Public Health 2017). See “Your Guide to Common Edible Mushrooms,” below for more information.

Mushroom flavors are earthy and savory; they are rich in umami (a name derived from the Japanese word for delicious). Umami is the fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, salt and bitter. Tomatoes, aged cheeses, soy sauce and miso are also said to have the umami flavor.

The earthiness and umami of mushrooms mean they pair well with whole grains. Use mushrooms in whole-wheat pasta dishes; whole-grain salads; and whole-grain pilafs (like farro, barley or steel-cut oats). Whereas the acidity of a classic tomato pasta sauce can bring out the bitterness of whole-grain pasta, mushrooms soften that bitterness.

Is Fungus the New Meat?

Mushrooms have long been appreciated for their versatility in cooking. They can be eaten raw in a salad or add a meaty, chewy texture when cooked. They make vegetable dishes and vegetarian food seem more filling, so they are excellent choices as interest in plant-based and plant-forward eating increases.

A few years ago, a “mushroom burger” meant a great big grilled portobello. Today, a mushroom burger is more likely to be a “blended burger” of ground meat mixed with chopped mushrooms (The Mushroom Council 2018). Amy Myrdal Miller, director of The Culinary Institute of America’s Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative, teamed with researchers from the University of California at Davis to test meat and mushroom blends and found that consumers liked meat-mushroom blends better than beef alone, even when the beef-mushroom blends were lower in sodium (Myrdal Miller et al. 2014).

Adding mushrooms to meat deepens the umami taste, increases juiciness and prevents meat from drying out. A blended burger is also more sustainable, since reducing meat intake can decrease greenhouse gas emissions and water usage. Mushrooms are also less expensive than meat.

Try the “Mushroom-Beef Meatballs with Tzatziki Sauce” recipe below!

Sodexo, which provides foodservice in many settings—from schools and universities to hospitals, cafeterias and senior living residences—already serves beef-mushroom burgers and in January launched a bulk blend. According to chef Rob Morasco, senior director of Culinary Development, this allows “the blend” to be used, not only in burgers, but in all kinds of dishes, including meatloaf, meatballs, lasagna, pasta sauce and taco meat.

The blend is easy to make at home, and chopped mushrooms freeze well, so you can make batches ahead for blending into meat. Myrdal Miller emphasizes that “the culinary technique of pre-cooking mushrooms before blending is what makes the meat-mushroom blend truly delicious and craveable.” And think beyond blending mushrooms only with beef; they can add needed moisture and juiciness to lean meats like chicken and turkey.


California Department of Public Health. 2017. Use caution when collecting, eating wild mushrooms. Accessed Apr. 19, 2018: cdph.ca.gov/Programs/OPA/Pages/NR16-077.aspx.

Chen, S., et al. 2006. Anti-aromatase activity of phytochemicals in white button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus). Cancer Research, 66 (24), 12026–34.

Cor, D., Knez, Z., & Knez Hrncic, M. 2018. Antitumor, antimicrobial, antioxidant and antiacetylcholinesterase effect of Ganoderma lucidum terpinoids and polysaccharides: A review. Molecules, 23 (3), e649.

Friedman, M. 2016. Mushroom polysaccharides: Chemistry and antiobesity, antidiabetes, anticancer, and antibiotic properties in cells, rodents, and humans. Foods, 5 (4), 80.

Kohn, J.B. 2016. Are mushrooms a significant source of vitamin D? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116 (9), 1520.

Li, J., et al. 2014. Dietary mushroom intake may reduce the risk of breast cancer: Evidence from a meta-analysis of observational studies. PLOS ONE, 9 (4), e93437.

Mydral Miller, A., et al. 2014. Flavor-enhancing properties of mushrooms in meat-based dishes in which sodium has been reduced and meat has been partially substituted with mushrooms. Journal of Food Science, 79 (9), S1795-804.

The Mushroom Council. 2018. What is the blend? Accessed Mar. 20, 2018: mushroomcouncil.com/the-blend/.

NIH (National Institutes of Health). 2016. Vitamin D: Fact sheet for consumers. Accessed Mar. 20, 2018: ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-Consumer/.

Oder, T. 2013. Wild mushrooms: What to eat, what to avoid. Mother Nature Network. Accessed Apr. 17, 2018: mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/wild-mushrooms-what-to-eat-what-to-avoid.

O’Neil, C.E., Nicklas, T.A., & Fulgoni, V.L. 2013. Mushroom intake is associated with better nutrient intake and diet quality: 2001–2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Journal of Nutrition and Food Science, 3 (5).

Twardowski, P., et al. 2015. A phase I trial of mushroom powder in patients with biochemically recurrent prostate cancer: Roles of cytokines and myeloid-derived suppressor cells for Agaricus bisporus-induced prostate-specific antigen responses. Cancer, 121 (17), 2942–50.

USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). 2011. Mushrooms, all: U.S. per capita net domestic disappearance, 1965–2011. Economic Research Service Mushroom Industry Report. Accessed Mar. 20, 2018: usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/MannUsda/viewDocumentInfo.do?documentID=1395.

Valverde, M.E., Hernandez-Perez, T., & Paredes-Lopez, O. 2015. Edible mushrooms: Improving human health and promoting quality life. International Journal of Microbiology, 2015. dx.doi.org/10.1155/2015/376387.

Wasser, S.P. 2014. Medicinal mushroom science: Current perspectives, advances, evidences, and challenges. Biomedical Journal, 37 (6), 345–56.

Meet our experts

Authur_SannaDelmonico SANNA ­DELMONICO, MS, RDN, CHES, is a faculty member at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in the Napa Valley, where she teaches food safety and nutrition.

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