The benefits of mushrooms are still largely unknown, but researchers keep turning up remarkable ways they boost human health. In the past, food scientists praised mushrooms for what they didn’t contribute to the diet—they contain no cholesterol and gluten and are low in fat, sugars, sodium, and calories. But that was a narrow approach to a food that includes anywhere between 10,000 and 120,000 species and has been used for its amazing healing properties for centuries. “Mushrooms are a powerhouse nutrition,” says Angela Lemond, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and experts are beginning to wake up to the potentially massive health and medicinal benefits of a food that is so much more than a good pizza topping. Here’s everything you need to know about the advantages of adding mushrooms to your daily diet regimen.

Powerful Nutrients

Mushrooms are all over the place—on forest floors, between the cracks of crumbling sidewalks, in gardens, in circuitous networks beneath your feet. In fact, Oregon’s honey mushroom makes up the largest organism on Earth, an underground web that covers more than 3.7 square miles. Pause for a moment and think about that. We have vastly understudied an organism that, according to Robert Beelman, director of the Penn State Center for Plant and Mushroom Foods for Health, “is bigger and far more mysterious than all known organisms on the planet.”

Fortunately, experts have added the lowly mushroom to the superfood list because it can be an excellent source of four key dietary micronutrients that are known to be important to healthy aging: selenium, vitamin D, glutathione, and ergothioneine. All are known to function as antioxidants that can mitigate oxidative stress, which is considered to be the main culprit in causing the neurological diseases of aging such as cancer, dementia, and heart disease. Ergo is widely considered the primary nutrient on this list, so we’ll pay special attention to it here.

Why Ergo?

Ergothioneine (i.e. ergo) is an amino acid with antioxidant properties that is produced in nature principally by fungi, including mushrooms. It cannot be produced by humans, so it must be obtained from external dietary materials. As Beelman writes, “there was little scientific interest in ergo until 2005, when it was found that all mammals make a genetically coded transporter that rapidly pulls ergo into the red blood cells, which then distribute around the body where it accumulates in tissues that are under the most oxidative stress.” This led directly to the discovery that edible cultivated mushrooms were extremely rich sources of ergo and contained 10 times the amount of any other known food source. Meaning that because humans cannot make ergo on their own, and oxidative stress is considered the primary culprit in causing the neurodegenerative diseases of aging, the past decade or so has been abuzz with research centered on evaluating the potential role of ergo in preventing these kinds of death-causing afflictions.

Beelman’s current research is focused on the prevention of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease and is based on several compelling studies conducted with aging Asian populations. “One study conducted in Singapore showed that as people aged the ergo content in their blood declined significantly, which correlated with increased cognitive impairment,” Beelman writes. The authors of the study concluded that a dietary deficiency of ergo might predispose individuals to neurological diseases. Another study conducted with over 13,000 elderly people in Japan demonstrated that those who ate more mushrooms had less incidence of dementia, though the role of ergo consumed with the mushrooms was not examined even as the Japanese are known to be earnest consumers of mushrooms that contain high levels of ergo.

Of course, correlation does not assume causation, but these findings do support Beelman’s hypothesis that it may be possible to decrease the incidence of neurological diseases by increasing mushroom consumption. Indeed, no other food even comes close to mushrooms as a source of the most important antioxidants for human health, ergo being but one of them.

What Are The Best Mushrooms to Eat?

According to food scientists, these are 7 mushrooms with high levels of ergo that we should be eating:

  1. Porcini
  2. Golden Oyster
  3. Pioppino
  4. Oyster
  5. Lions Mane
  6. Maitake
  7. Shiitake

Happy foraging.

By: Nico Picciuto

(The research for this article was originally assembled by Robert Beelman, director of the Penn State Center for Plant and Mushroom Foods for Health)