Mushrooms can be a pretty divisive food: You either love them or you hate them. If you’re in the latter camp, though, it might be time to start acquainting yourself with these nutrient-dense powerhouses. A review published in the journal Advances in Nutrition found that eating two medium-size mushrooms every day may lower cancer risk by 45%.
The nutritional and overall health benefits of mushrooms are far-reaching, so to get a better read on the association between mushroom intake and cancer risk, researchers from Pennsylvania State University conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of 17 cancer studies.
After reviewing the findings, they determined that higher mushroom intake was, in fact, associated with lower total cancer risk—and particularly promising for breast cancer.
The benefits of mushrooms.
“Edible mushrooms are…rich in bioactive compounds, including phytochemicals (alkaloids, phenolic acids, flavonoids, carotenoids), fiber, polysaccharides, selenium, vitamins (e.g., niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, ascorbic acid, and vitamins B and D), and the crucial antioxidants ergothioneine and glutathione, which may play a significant role in the prevention of cancer,” the study states.
In short: They’re chock-full of beneficial nutrients.
Because of those bioactive compounds, mushrooms contain antimicrobial, antiviral, and antitumor properties. They have also been shown to protect the cardiovascular system and the liver. All in all, mushrooms act as immune system security guards, protecting the body from disease.
How they affect cancer risk.
While the exact protective mechanism is unclear, researchers suspect the antioxidants in mushrooms (namely from ergothioneine) might play a role. “Replenishing antioxidants in the body may help protect against oxidative stress and the risk of cancer,” Djibril Ba, a graduate student in epidemiology at Penn State College of Medicine, said in a news release.
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While ergothioneine is most potent in shiitake, oyster, maitake, and king oyster mushrooms, the research points out that other varieties, like white button, cremini, and portobello mushrooms are still associated with a lower cancer risk. (To expand your mushroom palate, check out this deep dive into 13 mushroom types, their benefits, and how to eat them.)
If you’re not in love with the flavor or texture of mushrooms, don’t worry! The findings show that it only takes about ⅛ to ¼ cup (about 2 mushrooms) daily to make a difference—a 45%-lower-risk kind of difference. So, start out by sneaking the veggie into your favorite dishes: As a popular plant-based alternative to meat, you might not even notice them.
After trying enough mushroom dishes, that unique umami flavor may become something you even start to crave. (Might we recommend these miso-glazed mushroom kebabs or blistered mushrooms with croutons and kale to kick off your obsession?)
The association between mushroom intake and a decreased cancer risk is promising. However, it’s essential to note that eating two per day won’t in and of itself prevent cancer. It’s still important to maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle and visit your doctor for scheduled health checkups—especially if cancer runs in your family.