Many believe mushrooms are vegetables, but this is far from the truth. Mushrooms are nothing more than the fruiting bodies of several fungi species, mainly basidiomycetes or ascomycetes (truffle). There are thousands of mushroom species in nature, coming in different shapes, sizes, and colors. The life cycle of mushrooms starts with the release and germination of spores into hyphae. These hyphae are crossed and combined, creating the mycelium, which then produces the primo that develops into the fruiting body. Mushrooms can be found on other plants, soil, or under the soil (hypogenous). However, not all of them are edible (around 200 species are edible). Some of them contain toxic substances that can turn lethal when consumed. Thus no one should try to collect mushrooms from the woods without being accompanied by an expert.
Due to the rise of veganism and the tendency for a more healthy diet, mushrooms have become very popular worldwide, and their demand has increased significantly. As a result, there is a need to cultivate them to prevent their extinction from the wild. However, mushrooms are not a recent ‘discovery.’ People have used consuming mushrooms since ancient times. In China, they believed mushrooms have medicinal properties, while the Greeks and Romans mainly collected them for culinary use.
Nowadays, mushrooms are cultivated almost everywhere in the world. Their increased demand is a result of their nutritious value. They have a meat-resembling taste and high protein content that makes them ideal meat substitutes, especially for people who do not consume meat. Additionally, they can cause a feeling of fullness and at the same time provide minimum calories, which makes them very popular for low calory diets. They have a very earthy, full taste, making them a favorite food for many, not only vegans-vegetarians.
Although there are thousands of species in nature, the cultivars most commonly used are 20 (35 species can be cultivated commercially). Nowadays, the leading producing country is China, followed by the USA, Netherlands, France, and Poland. The most widely consumed and cultivated mushrooms belong to the Agaricus bisporus species. These fungi are our known white mushrooms, which depending on their growth stage, can be found either as champignon or portobello in the market. The white mushroom forms a white hat which, as it matures, turns brownish. The second most popular mushroom is Pleurotus ostreatus, our known Pleurotus or oyster mushroom. This mushroom has an overall shape resembling an oyster and a beige to brownish coloration with white flesh. Other commonly consumed and cultivated species are:
- Lentinula edodes: or Shiitake mushroom
- Auricularia auricula-judge: or Jew’s ear mushroom
- Flammulina velutipes: or Enoki mushroom
- Volvariella volvacea: or straw mushroom
- Tremella fuciformis: or Snow ear mushroom
- Hypsizygus tessellatus: or the beach mushroom
- Stropharia rugosoannulata: or the wine cup mushroom
- Cyclocybe aegenita: or velvet pioppini
- Hericium erinaceus: or Satyr’s bread
- Tricholoma matsutake: or matsutake
Another mushroom category that is worth mentioning is those of the Tuber species. Our known truffles are among the most delicate and expensive delicacies one can eat. The reason is that they are tough to find and need years to grow. The most commonly cultivated truffle varieties are:
- Tuber aestivum Vittad: or Black Summer Truffle
- Tuber magnatum Picolor White Precious Truffle
- Tuber melanosporum Vittad: or Black Precious Truffle
- Tuber borchii Vittad: or White Spring Truffle
- Tuber uncinatum Chat: or Black Autumn Truffle
- Tuber brumale Vittad: or Black Winter Truffle
- Tuber inducum
- Tuber macrosporum
- Tuber mesentericum
Mushroom Nutritional value
Mushrooms contain 90% water and 10% dry matter.
100gr white row mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) contain:
Niacin: 3.6 mg
Health Benefits of Mushrooms
- Mushrooms are a good source of vitamins, including riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), and biotin (B7). These vitamins are important for energy production and skin health.
- The fiber in mushrooms may also help lower cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart disease and promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
- Mushrooms have a lot of antioxidant properties. Selenium and ergothioneine are two antioxidants found in mushrooms that help protect cells from oxidative stress and damage. Oxidative stress is associated with aging and various chronic diseases. Selenium is also important for thyroid health.
- Shiitake and maitake are high in Beta-glucans, a type of polysaccharide which stimulate the immune system by enhancing the activity of immune cells like macrophages and natural killer cells. They contain compounds like ergosterol and ergosterol peroxide that possess anti-inflammatory properties. These substances may help reduce inflammation in the body, and potentially lowering the risk of chronic diseases.
- When exposed to sunlight or UV light, some mushrooms can naturally synthesize vitamin D, specifically vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol). This can be particularly beneficial for individuals with limited sun exposure or those on plant-based diets.
- Certain mushrooms, such as chaga and cordyceps, have been used in traditional medicine for their potential antimicrobial and antiviral properties.
For further reading
Royse, D. J., Baars, J., & Tan, Q. (2017). Current overview of mushroom production in the world. Edible and medicinal mushrooms: technology and applications, 5-13.