Why Is Everyone So Obsessed With Mushrooms Right Now?
It used to be that the only time I really saw mushrooms was when a few white button mushrooms appeared on a garden salad or atop my cheese pizza. Now, shrooms are popping up everywhere from our plates to our coffee cups, with everyone from sustainability experts to wellness gurus hyping up the powerful properties contained within the mushroom kingdom.
Mushrooms are often considered a vegetable, but the truth is that they are actually considered a fungus. (Yep, you read that right.) But don't put shrooms in the same camp as mold and write them off as unsanitary—the truth is, the DNA of mushrooms has actually been found to have more in common with animals that plants. Intrigued yet? Mushrooms are truly magical (and not just in the trippy way, although we will get to that).
Keep reading to learn how mushrooms have the potential to heal our health, our planet, and our minds.
Health Benefits of Mushrooms
Let's start with the most basic use of mushrooms: As a part of our diet. In general, mushrooms are an extremely healthful food. They are filled with fiber, low in calories, and a rich source of a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. "Mushrooms are packed with a long list of nutrients. For example, they contain significant amounts of B vitamins, which help give you energy and are involved with repairing cell damage," says Dan Nguyen, RD. "Mushrooms are also a good source of potassium, which helps to regulate blood pressure and, if exposed to a UV light before or after they're harvested, mushrooms are an excellent source of vitamin D, which is involved in many things like bone health, the immune system, and heart health."
Mushrooms' rich, umami flavor and meaty texture makes them a popular alternative for those looking to reduce or eliminate meat without giving up taste and mouthfeel. And unlike most natural plant-based proteins, the protein in mushrooms contains all nine essential amino acids. This makes them highly digestible and usable by the body. Recently, we've even begun to see products come onto the market like mushroom "jerky," veggie burgers, chips, vegan bacon, and protein powders. But no pressure to get too fancy: Sauté your shrooms at home with some butter and herbs or simply roasted to reap all the health benefits of these powerhouses.
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The Adaptogen Trend
Mushrooms are an excellent source of the increasingly popular subset of herbs and plants known as adaptogens. Adaptogens are substances found in nature that are said to help the body counteract the effects of stress, potentially helping to improve immune function, address mood disorders such as anxiety, and even extend physical endurance. Mushroom varietals such as reishi, lion's mane, cordyceps, turkey tail, and shiitake are known for their adaptogenic qualities. Dried mushrooms have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine, but new interest in their potential benefits have made them the new darling of the wellness world. Companies like Four Sigmatic, KOS, and Om Mushrooms are putting dried mushrooms in everything from coffee to bone broth. Early research is promising, but whether or not you will experience the purported increase in brain power, stamina, and immunity from shroom supplements is yet to be proven (find out more from an RD in our guide to adaptogens here). As with anything new, consult with your doctor before you start dumping powdered chaga into your morning smoothie, and go from there based on how you feel when incorporating the magical fungi into your daily routine.
"Expanding the Mind"
Going outside the culinary realm, it is well known that certain types of mushrooms contain psilocybin, a psychedelic substance that can cause hallucinations, feelings of euphoria, and sensory distortion (when taken in large quantities). While taking a magic mushroom "trip" carries images of zoning out on a psychedelic journey that could end disastrously, many people use psilocybin in small doses—called microdosing—to increase focus, level out their mood, and tap into feelings of empathy. In her book A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life, writer Ayelet Waldman challenges the perception of what "type of person" uses psychedelics (in her case, she microdosed LSD, not psilocybin, which has very similar effects) and makes a strong case for using the powerful drug in small amounts similar to how we think of antidepressants.
Some people who shun alcohol and other drugs even include psilocybin in their definition of "California Sober," a new lifestyle trend that prioritizes clarity of mind over numbing out. Unfortunately for those who are interested in the therapeutic properties of psilocybin, magic mushrooms are still illegal in all states except for Oregon, which recently passed legislation to make psilocybin available to those over 21 through licensed facilities. This is similar to the beginning of the legal cannabis movement, in which states began to make medical marijuana legal before considering the recreational route.
In addition to recreational use, there is early research that shows promise in the area of using psilocybin to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. There are currently clinical trials underway to explore this new area of research, but it will be some time before we have definitive results about psilosybin's efficacy. Research is made difficult by both the illegality of the substance as well as cultural stigma against its use. However, there is hope for those who struggle with hard-to-treat mental health that there may be another path towards healing in the form of fungi.
Mushroom Growing and Sustainability
Finally, let's talk environmental impact, which is yet another area in which mushrooms excel. Overall, mushroom growing has a very low environmental footprint. A 2017 report by the Mushroom Council assessed the environmental impacts of growing mushrooms over two years and found that production of a pound of mushrooms requires far less water and energy than most other agricultural crops, with an extremely low CO2 emissions rate to boot. To add to the sustainability of large-scale mushroom growing, mushrooms are often grown in vertical structures, meaning that you need far less land for production than crops that grow in flat rows. This means less deforestation, more soil conversation, and a more energy-efficient operation, overall.
Think it couldn't get more eco-friendly than that? Think again: It turns out that mushrooms are essentially trash recyclers, using byproducts leftover from processing of other crops, animal agriculture, fiber, and fuel. Their ability to decompose other organisms and turn them into an edible and medicinal substance makes mushroom farming an extremely beneficial part of our ecosystem.
While you can certainly purchase your mushrooms at the store or farmers market and feel darn good about it, many people are opting to experience the miracle of fungi in the comfort of their own homes. Growing mushrooms at home can seem downright magical, watching the minuscule spores develop into complex structures that sometimes seem more like works of art than anything you would want to eat. While the initial process for home growing can be somewhat arduous, mushroom farming at home has become a popular pandemic activity, similar to other scientific culinary hobbies like advanced baking techniques and the art of home fermentation. One introductory mushroom growing supply kit even reported a pandemic sales spike of 400 percent compared to the previous spring!
Outside of enjoyment, growing mushrooms at home can also save you money. I love the mushroom stand at my local farmers market, but it's too easy to drop my budget for the day's excursion solely on gourmet mushrooms like oyster and lion's mane (not so easy is explaining to your partner why the entirety of dinner is a plate of sautéed shrooms).
However you choose to source your mushrooms, it's safe to say that the days of under-appreciation of these friendly fungi are well behind us.