The Dietary Benefits of Mushrooms

By Food Correspondant Mike Tangedal

Not enough mushrooms are eaten in Western culture to warrant their placement in any comprehensive nutritional guide. The food spectrum constituting a healthy diet changes in our culture at the rate that society changes, but even the most trendy, forward-thinking dietary guide isn’t going to mention the oft forgotten third kingdom of life. Fungi can be food but does this warrant yet another rethinking of what we should be eating, specifically, the dietary benefits of mushrooms? 

We all have to eat. 

What we choose to eat may not be a real choice. People are susceptible to all manner of influence internally as well as externally. Do a deep dive on the physiology of appetite and you’ll read up on all manner of bacteria living all through our G.I. tract that are sending signals to the nervous system on what foods they prefer. It’s a lot to contemplate but much evidence exists. Those multisyllabic words in your favorite packaged foods may be the preferred chemical that causes cravings through the bacteria telling your brain that’s what they want. It’s not you that’s hungry; it’s the bacteria. 

The power of advertising

In terms of a story of external stimuli, when I was but a youngster I had a sleepover at a friend’s house and when it came time for breakfast the next morning I noted that he was eating a cereal that I hadn’t tried. “You just got this because you like the commercial!” I proclaimed in a tone like Paul Stamets ridiculing cancer prognosticators. “So what?”, he said. “That means it’s good!” 

Sure I was a kid and not ready for such deep thinking but that stuck with me. Like it or not, we are all subject to marketing and prejudice in our food choices. Last time I checked, mushrooms aren’t backed by big ad campaigns. Neither are most of the actual healthy foods we should be eating. When’s the last time you saw an ad for whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and nuts? It’s been quite a while since the California raisins were a thing. 

“Say, that is a list of healthy foods, Mike. It’s also a list of VEGAN foods. Are we going down this road now?” Well, not really but sort of, kind of. Humans are built as omnivores. We do have pointy teeth meaning meat is on the menu. Any dietitian worth their salt will note the health benefits of a vegan diet. The zealots that preach veganism also won’t tell you that chips, licorice, and French fries are 

all vegan. Then again, animal-based protein can be every bit as beneficial as well as quite tasty. Eggs and dairy are quite delicious as well. 

What’s also darn tasty but equally deceptive are processed foods. 

That’s where the money and marketing are. Inasmuch as we think we’re above the fray, all of us are susceptible to clever tricks to get us to consume items or little nutritional value. Even when thinking in our most rational manner, the voice inside driven by our gut biome has a lot of sway. Advertising adds to the turmoil. Especially egregious are the splashes put on the packaging touting the nutritional benefit when we have doubt. “Good source of fiber!” Well as long as the fiber comes with hydrogenated fat and sugar, what’s the harm? 

“Hey, isn’t this supposed to be about the dietary benefits of mushrooms?” 

Yes. Yes it is. I’m just showing what our favorite under-appreciated food is up against. Look at all the work our fungal friends are doing in making our beer and bread. Not all microscopic organisms are plotting against us. Lets get them some love! 

We all love mushrooms but none of us love only mushrooms. Too much dietary advice is binary. One can contemplate the health benefits of mushrooms while also acknowledging the benefits of a vegan diet while also being aware of the vulnerability of marketing while also appreciating our favorite foods which may or may not fall into any of those categories. Credible dietary advice does not have to be one thing or another. So let’s get real. 

The baseline is we want food that tastes good that is good for you. Mushrooms can fit the bill for both of those. What makes them taste good is to cook them and cook them well. I’ve written plenty on that. They’re also a good source of vitamins not 

regularly found in other foods as well as a decent source of fiber. When cooked properly the chitin in the structure of the mushroom breaks down and the flavor and fiber are revealed. 

So why aren’t people eating nothing but mushrooms? 

Because in addition to people wanting food that’s good and good for them they want food that sustains and drives them forward. They want food that will satiate all that’s set up in the stomach. From that standpoint, mushrooms fail. Not a lot of fat, protein, or calories in a mushroom. They are not a primal food. They are food enhancers. 

When you are hungry you are not looking for a food enhancer. What you want is something of substance that gets you back to where you want to be. It would be nice if it tasted good and was good for you but that’s not what’s driving your brain when the blood sugar gets low. When your body goes primal, you respond to primal impulses. 

So let’s get real about this paradox. 

We know when we get hungry we are most susceptible to processed food products with little nutritional value. But we also know how much better we’d feel if we ate something that helped our health and 

tasted good as well. So the solution is to focus on what makes food taste good. So in addition to the axiom of “Salt, fat, acid, heat” we can add the super power of mushrooms…


I didn’t even know umami was a thing until recently when I noted how much I liked a restaurant offering and was told it was due to the enhanced umami flavoring. Umami is a bump up in everything that makes a savory dish so lip smacking delicious. Mushrooms are loaded with umami. But they need some assistance from the cook to get that flavor out of them. 

Instead of processed food that may deliver basic components of salt, fat, acid, or heat, why not enhance some whole grains, beans, or vegetables with the umami of mushrooms? (Perhaps nuts and fruits can be paired with mushrooms as well; I’m a little iffy on that.). Curiously enough, to get mushrooms to maximum umami and therefore maximum enhancement requires some of those components. 

Enhancing Umami

One simply cannot maximize the flavor of a savory mushroom without the addition of salt and fat. It could be just a simple salt and a fat like your classic butter but savory mushrooms require these while cooking to maximize flavor and therefore bring a dish from “This is good” to “THIS IS GOOD”. Clean your mushrooms; dice or slice them; heat them in a pan until all water is evaporated; add salt and butter/oil to taste. It’s a simple but delicious process. 

The addition of acid and/or heat depends on whatever these mushrooms will be enhancing. If they are going into a dish based on starch, then balsamic vinegar will make them sing. Put some balsamic on a sandwich with fried mushrooms and tell me it doesn’t make it so much better. If you have a salad with a protein that pairs well with mushroom, you’ll rejoice with the addition of lime/lemon juice. Acid can make those flavors pop. 

Heat is tricky in that people have wildly different tolerances for spicy foods. Also, most mushrooms have a subtle flavor profile easily overwhelmed by the addition of some spicy pepper. A little spice can be nice but know that to overwhelm the subtlety of the mushroom flavor is doing your recipe no favor. 

Sweet and sour mushrooms?

If you’ve ever had hot and sour soup then you know how a sour component can be quite nice with mushrooms. Also the candy cap mushroom (Lactarius sp.) has a maple flavor that can compliment a dessert. These are the exceptions to the rule. I’ve tried more than a few recipes where someone added a dried mushroom to ice 

cream or tossed some mushrooms in a salad that just didn’t work. Ice cream and a full salad have a complete flavor profile. No need for enhancement. 

So let’s all acknowledge that we are susceptible to the evil nature of food marketing as well as the sinister intent of our gut biome. But flavor enhancers like mushrooms allow us to rise above and make better choices. Here’s to you and yours eating better in the upcoming mushroom season.