All too often, mushrooms get casually tossed in with vegetables as a food group, but they most definitely are not a vegetable. They miss the characteristics of the basic food groups to qualify any of them really. So what's the deal, are mushrooms vegan friendly as a sustainable meat alternative or not?
What food group are mushrooms a part of, are they considered a fruit?
By not consisting of any roots, leaves, or seeds, and thriving without the need for chlorophyll or light to grow, they are a unique species all on their own. Even though they don’t quite have the characteristics of a typical plant, these truffles are still considered a plant-based food.
Mushrooms are classified as fungi in the food kingdom and are so amazingly nutritious that they are also a member of the superfood family. Various societies have incorporated them for thousands of years, including the Greek, Chinese, and Egyptians. The healing properties among thousands of known species of fungi are vast and run deep in these ancient cultures.
Their uses range from dietary to medicinal and come in many stunning forms and textures. What you find in the grocery store is only a tiny fraction of what exists out in nature. The nutrients found in common edible mushrooms are also found in meats, grains, fruits, and vegetables, making them a valuable addition to the kitchen.
They provide us with up to 20% of the daily recommended value sources of niacin, selenium, riboflavin, and copper. They contain potassium, fiber, vitamin B, C, & D, calcium, and antioxidants. Mushrooms also have a protective quality on our brains and blood vessels and act as an anti-inflammatory on the body.
Mushrooms are not only a healthy addition to the vegan, WFPB, or any diet really, but also a wonderfully considerate choice for the planet. These truffles grow in environments that are easily maintained, recycle nutrients, and revitalize the soil to support future plant growth moreover.
One of the reasons mushrooms are difficult to distinguish from being either plant or animal is the fact that they don’t photosynthesize. While this is a prominently lacking feature, they do still absorb their water and nutrients directly from the soil to survive, which animals cannot.
The other concern is that mushrooms contain chitin, which has been found in shellfish but not found in the plant kingdom. This common qualities makes more of the skeptical vegan question this fungi. They are also a source of vitamin D, usually only found in animal products. Their vitamin D content also increases with sun exposure, another feature that is not possible to recreate by our vegetable counterparts. Mushrooms, being far from a fruit, happen to still act primarily as the fruit of a larger organism, mycelium.
In this sense, mushrooms are similar to plants, and the mycelium represents the 'stems and roots.’ These fungal organisms can grow massively underground up to 1,500 acres, like the one recorded in Oregon and what may be the largest single living organism in the world.These larger systems intimately tie together through symbiotic relationships with the forests they inhabit.
Without their existence, delicately balanced ecosystems would cease to evolve as fungi are responsible for the transmutation from death to rebirth among plants, animals, and the soil in nature. The process of recycling that occurs naturally in these systems would have no way to break down and further support larger life cycles.
Do vegans eat mushrooms as part of a plant-based Diet?
Seeing as mushrooms not only help the earth immensely while taking very little in return, they are a cruelty-free option that lightens quite a burden off our animal friends, as well. They have no central nervous system to sense pain from and are substantial in nutrients, making them the perfect candidate for meatless meals and more.
There are many delicious ways to prepare and incorporate them into any meal throughout the day. A variety to choose from exist as well, like Beech and Enoki, all of which contain a different range of health and healing factors for the body. Here are some commonly found choices at the grocery store to start with:
White Button Mushrooms are the most popular option in the west, containing the antioxidant selenium which prevents cell and tissue damage, and vitamin D. These are commonly used in pasta sauces, stews and appetizers.
Portobellos or mature cremini mushrooms are excellent substitutes for steaks when reaching for a meaty texture without all the extra calories, fat, and cholesterol. They are great marinated and grilled, stuffed and baked, sliced or chopped for casseroles, and more.
Shiitake mushrooms provide essential vitamins and nutrients, as well as copper. Their anti-inflammatory influences lead to a boost in immune function, and anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties support the gut microbiome too.
Some of the more exotic options include bizarre-looking varieties, but they only broaden the possibilities of the dinner menu and the health benefits that come with them.
Oyster mushrooms are less commonly found in general grocery stores but contain significant levels of zinc, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin C, folic acid, niacin, and vitamins B-1 and B-2 and have a high level of antioxidants. They are used in more soups and stir-frys, but have other tasty, versatile uses as well.
The lion’s mane, which aids the circulatory system and cognitive function, contains up to 20% protein and, in some countries, is considered to be a gourmet dish. It is believed that they even assist in relieving mild cases of anxiety and depression. The flavor is sweet and savory, with a texture and taste that is comparable to lobster meat.
Reishi mushrooms, also known as the king of mushrooms, has been a popular choice in Asia for over 2,000 years for longevity, boost immune function, mental clarity, energy levels, and sleep support.
Lightly grilling seems to be the most healthful and flavorful way to preserve the precious nutrients found in these miraculous champignons. Adding a splash of olive oil and some seasonings equal a quick and healthy side to any meal. Activating an extra boost of vitamin D can be done with a sunbath an hour or two before preparing, flip them upside down to be most effective.
What are the healing properties of mushrooms?
When looking into the medicinal benefits of mushrooms, their field of advantages expand exponentially. Although not medically proven in the northwestern hemisphere, various cultures in the east have made use of them for ages.
These magical spores have caught wind, and news has traveled over about their numerous healing properties. Now over 100 species are being studied to gain the evidence to support these ancient methods.
Some of the most renowned healing qualities of the chaga and other species include:
- Boosts in Mental health and Energy
- Inhibition of tumors
- Stimulates digestion and appetite
- Purifies the blood
- Regulates blood sugar
- Heart Support
- Regulates the immune system
- Effective prebiotic
Beta-glucans are found in all mushroom species and are known to help fight inflammation and aid the immune system. They also contain lectins that can recognize and seize the growth of cancer cells. The powerful antioxidants provide neutralize free radicals while relaxing and rejuvenating the body and mind. The immune system itself also gets a boost and extra support.
Potent compounds in species like the Lion’s Mane can activate a significant peptide (a small protein) known as “nerve growth factor” or NGF, and is essential for the growth, maintenance, and survival of the neurons within the brain.
They stimulate neurons to replenish the myelin sheath, a process known as remyelination, which helps to keep them healthy and maintain their ability to conduct electrical signals efficiently.
Studies of Mushrooms in Diets Providing Cognitive Support
One small supporting clinical study took place in Japan, where older men and women with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) were given Lion’s Mane for 16 weeks. Throughout the study period, those who ate the lion’s mane showed significant increases in cognitive function according to the scale created when compared with the placebo group. Studies show that the advantages ceased after the mushrooms were no longer consumed as well.
Short-term and visual recognition memory seems to diminish due to chronic ailments or over time with age. Both of them also appear to be supported by the peptides found in Lion’s Mane, which can help prevent the breakdown of these crucial memory patterns and delay the onset of cognitive dysfunction.
Another study in Singapore followed 663 individuals over the age of 60 who ate different amounts of white button mushrooms, golden, oyster and shiitake mushrooms, and dried and canned mushrooms over five years.
They found that those who ate 1-2 servings (about three-quarters of a cup of cooked) a week profoundly reduced their risk for developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI), but by just adding one or more servings a week jumped it to over 50% reduced risk.
These studies do not prove cause and effect, but they do demonstrate the association between consuming mushrooms and reductions in memory loss. Food studies are challenging to control, making concrete evidence somewhat elusive in these studies.
Also, supporting factors must be taken into consideration. As in the fact that many people who eat healthily are also more likely to participate in robust lifestyle measures, like regular exercise. These aspects also tie in a balanced mind and emotional state.
If desiring the medicinal aspects but the flavor or texture is unpalatable, then supplements are available and can have synergistic effects when multiple species are combined. Just be sure to find a manufacturer that offers 100% organic vegan extracts or supplements handled under strict guidelines that preserve their nutrient content and overall effectiveness.
One thing for sure is that mushrooms are supportive in creating an internal environment where physical and mental activity can continue to thrive. When it comes to exercise and endurance, mushrooms are yet again a great companion to add to the whole foods plant-based diet.