One of 2018’s hottest health trends has actually been around for centuries.
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Credit: Photo: Justin Walker

With a new year come new food trends. Some are fleeting fads (looking at you, rainbow bagels) while others have more staying power.

One that may make the latter list this year: “functional mushrooms,” which ranked #3 on Whole Foods’ report of the top food predictions for 2018.

New Year. New Food. Healthy eating starts here with the Cooking Light Diet.

The term applies to certain types of mushrooms that are used for their medicinal benefits in a variety of food and health products, from bottled drinks, coffee, and smoothies to soups, desserts, and even skin and hair products.

The reason these ‘shrooms—which we’ve been eating without fanfare for centuries—are suddenly so buzzy?

“There is a growing body of research supporting mushrooms as a true superfood with immune boosting and cancer fighting properties,” explains Stephanie Ferrari, a Massachusetts-based registered dietitian.

Here, Ferrari and two other registered dietitians help dissect the trend.

Where did the trend originate?

While functional mushrooms may be newly trendy in the U.S., the medicinal benefits of mushrooms have been well-known in Asian countries for thousands of years, says Ferrari.

“In fact, traditional Chinese medicine employs the use of hundreds of different species of mushrooms,” she says. “It’s only been over the last few decades that Western populations have started to take notice.”

The trend first took root here in the supplements aisle, but is now expanding to include whole mushrooms incorporated into an array of dishes and mushroom-infused products available in several aisles of the grocery store.

What are the health benefits of functional mushrooms?

There is deep scientific literature that points to the healing properties of mushrooms, specifically their immune system and cancer prevention benefits, explains Ferrari.

Research suggests that mushrooms not only strengthen our immune systems, but may also be useful in treating certain diseases like asthma, allergies and arthritis due to their anti-inflammatory properties,” she adds. 

There’s also hope that these fungi may help fight cancer, thanks to germanium, an antioxidant that increases oxygen flow in the body and fights free radical damage.

Beyond that, mushrooms are low in calories, high in protein, and good sources of B vitamins, minerals and fiber, explains Allison Porter, a North Carolina-based registered dietitian, who is consulting on the forthcoming book, Wild Mushrooms: From Forest to Table.

“Several are considered adaptogens, which means they help us to cope with stress,” she adds. “That includes reishi, which has more than 150 other known health benefits.”

Where can you find them?

More than 2,000 species of mushrooms are edible, says Ferrari, but the most common are white button, portabella and crimini.

“Luckily, these superstars all provide health benefits and are available right in your grocery store in the produce section,” she says.

That said, there are certain varieties—like reishi, chaga, turkey tails, maiitake, shiitake, cordyceps and lion’s mane—that are the most studied and show the most promise in preventing and fighting disease. Aside from shiitake, which you can find at most grocery stores, these special ‘shrooms aren’t mainstream just yet, but you can find some online or at farmers’ markets, and you may see them popping up on menus at upscale restaurants or in natural food stores.

There’s also the more traditional method for fungi gathering: foraging them yourself.

“With a little expert guidance, mushroom-hunting can be surprisingly safe and easy,” says Porter. A quick Google search for “mushroom foraging” plus your location can reveal foraging lessons near you. You can also pick up a handy guide—though you should start by going with an expert, who can help you learn to identify the non-poisonous varieties.

How can you incorporate them into meals?

If you’re cooking standard store-bought mushrooms, try searing them for a smoky, roasted flavor—or roasting them for a sweet, umami taste with a nutty flavor, says Ferrari. But her favorite way to consume ‘shrooms? Chopping and blending them into main courses as a partial substitute for meat.

“By incorporating mushrooms into ground beef dishes like tacos or burgers, you’re enhancing flavor while also cutting calories, and adding nutrients like vitamin D, potassium and antioxidants,” she says, recommending 12 ounces of chopped mushrooms as a stand-in per every half pound of ground meat.  

If you happen to get your hands on the speciality types, know this: reishi, chaga and turkey tails go well with coffee and cocoa; turkey tails are mild enough to be added to soups and broths as well; and maiitake and shiitake are delicious simply sautéed with garlic, recommends Porter.

And as for the mushroom supplements you may see on your health food store shelves?

“In my expert opinion, nutrition comes from the whole food experience,” says Felicia Spence, a registered dietitian with Hilton Head Health. “You get so many other benefits of the whole mushroom like fiber, water, and volume to your food portion than one single nutrient extract in a supplement.”