The Many Ways of Using Mushrooms
Since time immemorial, humans have consumed mushrooms. The Romans claimed them to be “food for the gods,” and of course, Chinese culture has long used them for their medicinal properties. Most civilisations consumed them for their rich flavour and for culinary purposes.
Mushrooms are a highly nutritious food, high in protein, but low in fat and carbohydrates. They are also a source of important nutrients including selenium, potassium, copper, iron, B vitamins, and fibre. Recent literature has focused on the enormous health potential of the bioactive ingredients found in mushrooms.
When it comes to the medicinal properties of mushrooms, the mode of preparation is crucial. The beneficial components are trapped in an interlaced structure made of a hard carbohydrate similar to the protein found in our hair, skin, and nails. This molecule is known as chitin, and is an integral and indigestible part of the cell wall in mushrooms.
The trick is to release the beneficial molecules from this chitin structure. Think of mining for gold in a river, or panning, a process through which particles of soil and gravel are separated from gold by washing them in a pan with water. Same goes for the active immune components found in medicinal mushrooms: The chitin must be removed in order to extract the active compounds.
The traditional Asian method of extraction is hot-water extraction. Hot-water extraction helps to maximize the health benefits obtained from medicinal mushroom decoctions or supplements. Typically, mushrooms have to be simmered for extended periods, often for as long as 24 h, in order to obtain the benefits of the water-soluble compounds found in medicinal mushrooms. Simply making tea is not enough to release the therapeutic components; the process is more like making broth.
Simmering at temperatures ranging from 50 to 70 °C for several hours in order to make a concentrate is usually best for health benefits. Excessive heat must be avoided, as it can damage some of the bioactive molecules found in mushrooms. Without this hot-water extraction, the body cannot absorb the immune-active, water-soluble compounds.
In order to maximize the benefits of supplementation, outstanding supplements undergo hot-water extraction followed by evaporation, drying, and encapsulation. These extra steps add complexity and cost to the manufacturing process but maximize health benefits.
Although this method of preparation may be best for those looking for a standardized medicinal mushroom extract, incorporating more mushrooms in your everyday life is worthwhile, given they are often referred to as a superfood due to their many health benefits.
Mushrooms are available in a variety of formats—fresh, canned, dried, sliced, or in chunks. They are also available as ground-up mushroom powders; these can be used to add flavour to meals and soups. Mushrooms are often used as a meat replacement because of their umami or savoury flavour; the flavour is known to make a variety of foods more pleasant. Try fresh lion’s mane or maitake simply grilled in butter with garlic, or a miso soup with kombu and dried shiitake previously rehydrated: it’s priceless!
The nutritional benefits attributable to the protein, fibre, vitamin, and mineral content are available no matter the method of preparation. However, to release some of the soluble medicinal ingredients found in ground-up mushroom powders, it is best to add them to soups, stews, or other hot foods that are simmered for longer periods of time.
The immune benefits attributable to the water-soluble therapeutic compounds are more difficult to establish with dehydrated mushroom powders, but benefits are nonetheless expected, based on numerous studies showing that the dietary consumption of mushrooms alone improves health and immunity., , 
Dehydrated mushroom chunks or slices, from reishi or chaga for example, can be used to make tonic teas by simmering for 10–20 minutes but, again, decoctions in water for several hours are best.
In the Canadian food guide, mushrooms fall under vegetables and fruits although they are neither. They are a unique food that should be part of a healthy and varied diet. Mushrooms provide many healthy nutrients our body needs.
For those looking for specific health benefits, a standardized supplement obtained through a hot-water extraction offers the greatest therapeutic potential.
“Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.”
—William Cowper (1731–1800)
Dr. Ludovic Brunel, ND
Dr. Brunel has 15+ years of experience as a naturopathic doctor and practices in Calgary. His approach has always been to improve health outcomes by relying on the best research available.
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