By: Judy Davie, The Food Coach
It's the night of nights and the room is buzzing with excitement. The time has finally come to announce the most coveted prize, the greatest all rounder, the food that has made the greatest contribution towards good health, flavour and versatility.
The blueberry, a veteran winner at awards night rolls onto the stage her midnight blue coat magnificently taut against her plump curvaceous body. As last year's winner it is her job to announce the nominees and reveal this year's best food. As usual there are a long list of names to get through; once again eggs have made it to the final five for their solid nutritional performance on a budget, tomatoes, the people's choice, take a modest bow while the Asian greens, nominated for the second time in two years sit nervously to the left of the stage. Despite their extraordinary performance in affordability, speed to prepare and lengthy list of nutrients, with 50% of votes awarded by a panel of experts and 50% from the people, it's unlikely they will win the award until more people learn what to do with them. Olive oil, a hopeful nominee this year is ever resplendent in his shimmering gold cape. For years he has battled to shine above his overseas competitors in Spain and Greece, and now with these two countries almost on their knees, the slick Australian oil has found its place on the world stage.
As the spotlight remains for a second or so longer on the last nominee, the winner is announced. The light quickly finds its target and swings around as the blueberry announces, "the winner of this year's best food goes to ....Mushrooms".
No longer in the dark, the mushrooms make their way to the stage to take their prize.
It's hard to know where to start on the many attributes of mushrooms so why don't we be begin on the people's choice. Consumption of the common mushroom has increased fivefold since 1980 with four out of five households now eating mushrooms 3 to 4 times a week.
The popularity of mushrooms undoubtedly comes down to their flavour, called "umami", a Japanese term meaning flavoursome. Mushrooms contain natural glutamates which means when you add them to dishes there is less need for additional salt or flavourings. As a breakfast food mushrooms are a much healthier alternative to bacon. Sautéed mushrooms with steamed spinach and poached eggs served with toasted rye bread is one of my favourite breakfasts. It tastes terrific and provides satiety for many hours after eating.
Mushrooms have more protein than most vegetables and very low carbohydrate content. They are cholesterol free with negligible fat. One serve of mushrooms (100g = approx 3 mushrooms) produces over 20% of the daily needs for each of the B vitamins riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid and biotin. They also contain selenium and copper.
Research has linked vitamin D to numerous benefits including healthy bones, the prevention of rickets and osteoporosis, decreased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and colorectal cancer. And while the most efficient way to make vitamin D is through exposure to sunlight, with so many Australians protecting themselves from the harsh sunlight it is evident we are not making the amount of vitamin D is the body as we should. Dietary sources of vitamin D include canned fish and eggs. Through the action of sunlight, mushrooms convert their abundant ergosterol to ergocalciferol (vitamin D2). Cultivated mushrooms are usually low in mushrooms however those subjected to a short burst of UV light quickly generate vitamin D. Vitamin D from mushrooms is easily absorbed; 85% is retained after frying for 5 minutes and there is very little loss from storage. For people with little exposure to sunlight, 1 serve (100g) of vitamin D containing mushrooms is sufficient to get 100% of their daily vitamin D needs.
Mums of teenage vegetarians please take note. Vitamin B12 is a nutrient normally associated with animal foods. Research from the University of Western Sydney has conclusively proven that vitamin B12 is present in both the surface and flesh of the mushroom. It is the same bio-available vitamin B12 found in beef, liver and fish and while the amount of vitamin B12 varies from mushroom to mushroom it equates to about 1 - 5% of the recommended daily requirement. This may not be much but it is an important contribution for vegans who can't get B 12 anywhere else in their diet.
100 grams of cooked mushrooms provide 2.7 g of fibre. This fibre is mainly insoluble and is made up of chitin and glucans unlike cellulose the insoluble fibre found in most vegetables. Chitin has been associated with maintaining healthy blood cholesterol levels. Around 15 % of the total dietary fibre in mushrooms is resistant starch type 1 which can act as a prebiotic by resisting digestion to become a food for the healthy bacteria in the gut. In addition to lowering blood cholesterol, scientists at the University of Western Sydney found that mushrooms also helps to lower blood glucose levels in mice.
Comparing 30 common vegetables and using three different analytical methods, scientists placed mushrooms in the top five antioxidant capacity. The antioxidant ergothionene is believed to protect haemoglobin in red blood cells and protect against oxidation. This is particularly exciting as scientists now believe that through red blood cells, antioxidants are transported throughout the body to protect cells against oxidative stress. As with vitamin D, levels of ergothionene are not diminished with cooking.
The power of shitake mushrooms in strengthening immune function is well documented but a recent paper also discovered the common button mushroom enhanced the action of natural killer cells in mice. Mushroom extracts given to mice decreased inflammation and increased anti-cancer immune response.
A research team from the University of Western Sydney studied women in China and found a strong association between mushroom consumption and a decreased risk of breast cancer. Compared to having no mushrooms, woman eating 10g of mushrooms or more each day reduced their risk of cancer by over 60.
Mushrooms contain compounds that suppress two enzymes called aromatase and 5-alpha-reductase. Aromatase converts androgens to oestrogen which in turn can promote the development of breast cancer, especially in post menopausal woman. Currently aromatase inhibitors are being used in the treatment of oestrogen dependant breast cancer. Aromatase has been found in other cancers including ovarian, uterine and prostate.
The enzyme 5-alpha-reductase converts testosterone to di-hydrotestosterone and is thought to play a role in the development of prostate cancer and benign prostate enlargement. Research on animal cells suggests that mushrooms may have a role in protecting men against prostate cancer.
Like other vegetables and fruit, mushrooms are also low energy nutrient dense foods but they also appear to have another string to their bow: the ability to dampen the appetite.
Researchers found when meat dishes were substituted with button mushrooms the satiety of the meal was enhanced, despite the meal containing 420 kJ less than the meat meal. Over four days consumers ate 1555 kJ less overall than they would were the meals to contain meat.
Mushrooms and the mushroom industry have much to celebrate about. The message is quite clear, just 3 mushrooms a day (100 grams) will help towards overall good health, satiety, the protection against chronic diseases and weight management.