One of the most popular mushrooms is the shiitake (Lentinus edodes), which grows on decaying hardwood trees such as oaks, maples, chestnuts, hornbeams and ironwoods in their natural environment. They are also grown commercially.
A unique molecule in shiitake mushrooms known as lentinan improves your immune system, enhancing resistance against infections and helps to slow the growth of tumors. Rather than killing cancer cells directly, lentinan, a sugar molecule, instead enhances your immune system, which may help slow the growth of tumors.
Shiitake mushrooms were used in folk medicine for treating tumors, flu, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, weakness and fatigue. Shiitakes are loaded with vitamins, minerals and compounds, even though they are close to 90% water.
Compounds in these fungi were found to effectively treat or protect against:
- Cancer, including breast cancer, certain colon and bladder cancer cells, and tumors, inhibiting cancer growth and inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death, a good thing)
- Infectious diseases
- High blood pressure
- Heart and liver problems
There is also evidence of cognitive benefits, as people who ate mushrooms twice or more per week, compared to those who ate them less than once per week, were found to have a 50% lower risk of mild cognitive impairment.
Some of the most dramatic benefits are for specific areas of your body:
- Bone health – Vitamin D in edible mushrooms helps absorb calcium, which helps strengthen bones. In fact, exposing mushrooms to ultraviolet (UV) light increases the vitamin D levels. An animal study found that mice fed UV-exposed mushrooms and calcium, compared with other mice deprived of vitamin D and calcium, exhibited higher bone density.
- Cancer-fighting properties – A review of five edible mushrooms – button, oyster mushrooms, maitake mushrooms, and shiitakes – revealed that they all share anti-cancer compounds such as polysaccharides, proteoglycans and steroids. Lentinan, a polysaccharide in shiitakes which can be used along with chemotherapy to improve survival rates even in advanced cases, reportedly activates your immune system to halt the proliferation of leukemia cells.
- Antimicrobial properties – One of the most concerning problems related to health care today involves the common use of antibiotics and resulting resistance. An example is tuberculosis, which researchers have found may be remedied by the antimicrobial properties of the lentinan in shiitake mushrooms.
- Dental health – A 2016 study notes a recent upsurge of interest in mushrooms, particularly shiitakes, as a caries preventive food. It notes a number of ways its compounds exert antimicrobial activity.
- Heart health – Several compounds in shiitake help lower cholesterol and may reduce your risk of heart disease.
The nutrients in 4 dried shiitake (15 grams) are:
- Calories: 44
- Carbs: 11 grams
- Fiber: 2 grams
- Protein: 1 gram
- Riboflavin: 11% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Niacin: 11% of the DV
- Copper: 39% of the DV
- Vitamin B5: 33% of the DV
- Selenium: 10% of the DV
- Manganese: 9% of the DV
- Zinc: 8% of the DV
- Vitamin B6: 7% of the DV
- Folate: 6% of the DV
- Vitamin D: 6% of the DV
In addition, shiitake contain many of the same amino acids as meat.
Most people can safely consume shiitake, although some side effects may occur. In rare cases, people can develop a skin rash from eating or handling raw shiitake. This condition, called shiitake dermatitis, is thought to be caused by the sugar in the mushroom that I mentioned above, lentinan.
In addition, using powdered mushroom extract over a long period may cause other side effects, including stomach upset and sensitivity to sunlight.
Some also claim that mushrooms’ high purine levels can cause symptoms in people with gout. Nonetheless, research suggests that eating mushrooms is linked to a lower risk of gout.
How to Buy
Shiitake mushrooms are often sold dried. Before cooking, soak them in hot water to soften them.
To select the best fresh specimens, look for ones sold whole rather than sliced. The caps should be thick with deep, white gills.
You will find them in the cooler of your market. They are tan to dark brown, with caps that grow between 2 and 4 inches.
How to Store
Shiitake mushrooms should be stored in a breathable paper bag in the refrigerator.
If the mushrooms you brought home were whole and unbruised, you should get up to seven days of healthy, dry-to-the-touch mushrooms before the mushrooms go slimy.
How to Cook
Shiitake mushrooms have a buttery flavor, which becomes rich and smoky when dried. Shiitakes can be sautéed in coconut or avocado oil, used as a sandwich filling and diced to use in soups, casseroles and stir-fries.
When cooking with fresh shiitake mushrooms, remove the stems, which remain tough even after cooking. Save the stems in the freezer for making veggie stock.
You can cook shiitake as you would any other mushroom. Here are a few suggestions:
- Sauté shiitake with greens and serve with a poached egg
- Add them to pasta dishes or stir-fries
- Add them to soups
- Roast them for a crispy snack or side dish.