Edible mushrooms are well-positioned to capitalize on consumer interest in better-for-you foods that focus as much on flavor as health. While most consumers enjoy mushrooms largely for the flavor, the recognition of mushrooms as bearers of powerful chemical compounds that help protect against and even mitigate disease is triggering a surge in interest from product developers.

Among culinarians, mushrooms are among the top ingredients for incorporating umami sensory notes in food formulations. Versatility and utility to improve the nutrient density of meals also have bolstered mushrooms’ popularity as a component of the global diet.

However, historic knowledge of the curative abilities of certain mushrooms in traditional medicine systems was limited in Western culture to certain psychoactive capacity known primarily among First Nations tribes of the Southwest and Mexico. Even so, the folk medicine of the Western world and the traditional medicine of the Orient rarely crossed over into the culinary world.

On the medicinal side, mushrooms were used in teas, tonics, and soups for an impressive variety of diseases, conditions and health benefits. Studies on taking mushrooms for medicinal purposes have been described in Western scientific literature for more than a century.

China has been known as the cradle of medicinal mushroom usage as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Dozens of different mushrooms and other fungi—not all of them palatable, either—were employed for a long-list of medicinal purposes, including influenza, tumors, cancer, neuralgia, high blood pressure, rickets prevention, liver cirrhosis, hepatitis, insomnia, asthma, diabetes, and stomach ailments.

In Central and South America, mushrooms have been used by native populations to prevent cancer and treat malignant tumors, chronic hepatitis, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and hypercholesterolemia.

As with studies of botanicals, scientists have been hard at work in recent years investigating how much of mushroom lore can be supported by research. The result? Since 1990, more than 10,000 papers have been published on the effects of mushroom intake on human health.

Many of these papers focused on immune function and anti-cancer effects of edible mushrooms and their components, either as a primary or adjuvant therapy in some chronic diseases. Most of the studies had positive results. Add to that the recent recognition of mushrooms (especially mushrooms exposed to UV light) as a significant vitamin D source, and it can be said definitively that mushrooms are good for you.

Last year, the James Beard Foundation officially recognized The Blended Burger Project and combining mushrooms and ground meat for flavor and health.

There are approximately 20-30 cultivated edible species, around 15 wild edible species that are commonly collected for commercial sale, and many more wild, noncommercial edibles. Sometimes called the common mushroom, Agaricus bisporus, which includes white button, cremini, and portabellas (growing conditions are what determine size and color), is ubiquitous in the culinary repertoire.

The next most common commercial mushroom species are shiitake (Lentinus edodes), straw mushrooms (Volvariella volvacea), oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), and enoki (Flammulina ostreatus). Other varieties enjoying increased commercialization are king oyster/king trumpet mushrooms (Pleurotus eryngii), chanterelles (genus Cantharellus), and Hen-of-the-Woods (Grifola frondosa), and morels (genus Morchella). The latter three are only recently cultivated and still more commonly obtained in the wild.


Fungi as a Functional Food

Although considered a vegetable in dietary advice, mushrooms are fungi and differ biologically from plants and animals. Fungi contain chitin
(a polysaccharide derivative of glucose also found in the exoskeleton of
crustaceans), not cellulose found in plants, and they contain the unique sterol ergosterol, rather than cholesterol found in mammalian cells.

Different from pharmaceutical agents that have a therapeutic role in disease, nutrients and bioactive compounds in mushrooms typically are investigated for their preventative potential.  Various preclinical and clinical studies suggest that consumption of certain mushroom species (as either food or extracts), or consumption of mushrooms’ specific constituents, could help reduce the risk of certain diseases.

Mushrooms also are distinct from plants and animals in their nutrient profile. While they do contain small quantities of vitamin B12, it is not in the same form as that found in meat. And the ergosterol gets converted by UV light to vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and conjugated linoleic acid. Additionally, mushrooms are a source of fiber and other B vitamins.

When it comes to minerals, mushrooms are a source of phosphorus, potassium, zinc, magnesium, calcium, copper, and even iron. They are especially rich in selenium, a unique mineral in that it has strong antioxidant capacity, as well as the uncommon sulfur-containing amino acid, ergothioneine.

Ergothioneine has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These compounds have been shown to help strengthen the immune system, promote digestive health, and protect the body from oxidative damage and chronic disease.

Mushrooms’ immunomodulatory capacity and potential antitumor activity also are a function of their beta-D-glucan polysaccharides. In addition to strong scientific support for the role beta-glucans can play in immune function, recent animal studies demonstrated that dietary supplementation with white button mushrooms could help enhance immune cell activity, potentially conferring protection against viral infections.

By 2010, vitamin D was identified as a nutrient of concern in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (based on low intake and diminished exposure to sunlight secondary to greater awareness of skin cancer). Growers have the ability to increase vitamin D levels in mushrooms by exposing them to ultraviolet light.

These vitamin D-enriched mushrooms are a safe and effective ingredient, able to increase vitamin D levels in healthy individuals. For about a decade, vitamin D-enriched white button and brown cremini mushrooms have been widely available in supermarkets. These products provide close to 400 IU per 100g serving. And recent animal studies found that vitamin D2-enriched mushroom powders could improve bone health.


Trend to Blend

Mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with meat, which is why chefs have always known that they can enhance the flavor of meat dishes by adding mushrooms.

According to Datassential, mushrooms are the number one topper on steak and chicken, and the number one “extra” vegetable topper on burgers (as opposed to the common lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, etc.).

Building on traditional culinary techniques and that symbiotic relationship, The Mushroom Council partnered with the Culinary Institute of America to determine how to deliver the nutrients of mushrooms to consumers without sacrificing flavor.

Since ground or finely diced mushrooms look, act, and perform similarly to ground meat, it turned out that blending the two together could allow formulators to craft such iconic foods as burgers, meatballs, meatloaf, and tacos in a manner that enhances flavor. The result is a significant reduction in calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

Blending mushrooms with meat also yields a reduction of carbon footprint and water usage. The blend also is juicier, and provides better texture, better holding, and improved flavor.

A 2014 study conducted by University of California, Davis, and the Culinary Institute of America and published in the Journal of Nutrition Science revealed that a majority of consumers preferred the flavor, mouthfeel, and spice levels of a 50% mushrooms-50% beef taco over the 100% beef version.

The study, “Flavor-Enhancing Properties of Mushrooms in Meat-Based Dishes in which Sodium Has Been Reduced and Meat Has Been Partially Substituted with Mushrooms,” showed that the blend can reduce calorie, fat, and sodium intake, while adding nutrients such as vitamin D, potassium, B-vitamins, and antioxidants. It further noted that the blend enhances overall flavor due to its “double impact” as an imparter of umami and ability to maintain flavor.

Colleges have adopted the 50-50 blend concept (called “the Blend”) to create healthier meals and improve the sustainability of their menus. Yale, Harvard, University of Massachusetts, Stanford University, University of Southern California, University of Washington, Ohio State University, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State University, and Compass Group all have featured the Blend in their foodservice operations.

Consumers and product developers benefit from the regular inclusion of nutritious, tasty, and versatile mushrooms.

QSR venues, including Cheesecake Factory, Gordon Biersch, Pizza Hut, Applebee’s, Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, Hilton restaurants, and others are adding such mushroom-blended items to their menus. They cite the ability of the Blend to help them improve nutrition and meet the changing eating habits of their guests.

Schools have been an especially important segment embracing the Blend. Doing so allows them to increase portion size while containing calories and meeting nutrition guidelines. Hundreds of school districts in the US have added blended meat/mushroom items to the menu. On the prepared foods side, more than a dozen different products now are available, with many more in the pipeline.


Favored Forms

While fresh mushrooms are abundant, inexpensive, and easy to work with, mushrooms are hardy enough to keep their flavor when frozen or dried. Dried mushrooms have a number of advantages, especially as they require much less storage space (mushrooms are about 94% water) and have an incredibly long shelflife.

One of the biggest advantages of dried mushrooms is that they allow product makers and chefs access to many more exotic mushrooms. Since regionality and seasonality can make some varieties of mushrooms (especially wild mushrooms) difficult to source, dried mushrooms give chefs year-round access.

Dried mushrooms from a reputable supplier are expertly cleaned and prepared. This is of great advantage when working with boletes such as porcini. Having tiny honeycomb-like pores instead of gills, these tasty mushrooms are natural sand traps, making cleaning and prep difficult. For chefs, dried versions are a welcome relief.

Another dried mushroom ingredient that chefs and product developers are becoming enamored with is mushroom powder. Multiple types are available, with porcini powder being one of the more common favorites. Mushroom powders can be used to boost flavor without salt, and to add umami without using meat-or soy-derived ingredients.

Powdered flavor enhancers derived from mushrooms are similar to mushroom powders, but lack a strong mushroom flavor profile. They are highly soluble and so can be incorporated easily into formulations. Both ingredient types can be used to boost flavor in sauces, stews, soups, pasta dishes, and other savory items.

From mycoceuticals to everyday usage for consumers and foodservice operators, mushrooms will continue to play a significant role in nutrition, sustainability, and great flavor. No matter how consumers interact with mushrooms, they can benefit from the regular inclusion of nutritious, tasty, and versatile fungi in a healthful diet.

Originally appeared in the July, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Mushrooms on Top.