Smart Fuel: Shiitake Mushrooms

Once relegated to the Asian foods section of grocery stores, shiitake mushrooms have emerged a prominent contender in the produce aisle, promising to add a little extra oomph – and even some medicinal benefits – to vegetable socks, soups and noodle dishes.

Although this fungi is an excellent source of selenium and a good source of iron, protein, dietary fiber and vitamin C, shiitake mushrooms are much more revered for their combination of antioxidants and other compounds, so much so that they have been used in Asian medicine for the past 6,000 years!

Specifically, shiitake mushrooms contain a polysaccharide known as lentinan that is thought to shore up the immune system, particularly in people who have a compromised immune system due to HIV, AIDS or other immunodeficiency disorders. In addition, lentinan has also been shown to offer a protective benefit against certain cancer types by increasing the population of reticular cells (a type of immune cell that actively seeks out and ingests bacteria, cancer cells and other cell waste) and drawing T lymphocytes (another immune system heavy hitter) to prevent cancer cell proliferation.

In addition, mushrooms are also an excellent source of L-ergothioneine – containing roughly 13 mg per 3 oz serving – or about forty times the amount of top L-ergothioneine heavy hitter wheat germ. What’s the big deal about L-ergothioneine? Well, this powerful antioxidant – which is only available via dietary resources – is thought to play a key role in both energy regulation and in protecting cells from free radicals and their associated oxidative damaging (think wrinkles, skin damage, and general aging of the entire body). Even better news? L-ergothioneine remains intact in mushrooms during cooking.

But are there any drawbacks to indulging in your favorite fungi? Well, yes. It should be noted that shiitake mushrooms contain a naturally-occurring compound known as purines that can cause excess accumulation of uric acid in the body, which in turn can lead to gout or the formation of kidney stones. However, this is generally not a problem for the majority of the population and shiitake mushrooms – and other sources of purines – should only really be of concern to those already suffering from kidney problems or gout.

When selecting shiitake mushrooms (a name that can be interchanged for similar reishi and maitake mushrooms), look for those that are firm, plump and clean with no dark spots or “bruises.” Since the mushrooms are porous, they should be refrigerated in a paper bag – where they can stay fresh for about a week – and cleaned before preparation only with a damp paper towel (as opposed to being rinsed or submerged in water, which can cause them to become soggy). However, if you find that your mushrooms have become dried out during storage, placing them in a bowl of water for 30 minutes can do wonders to revive them!

tamaki Flickr Photo (CC)

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17 thoughts on “Smart Fuel: Shiitake Mushrooms”

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  1. I regularly wash all of my mushrooms under running water then dry them before cooking, and it’s not affected them in any way — ‘shrooms that haven’t already lost moisture won’t pick up any more of it, and all of them release tons of water while they’re cooking anyway.

    But don’t take my word for it; Alton Brown did an experiment on his show where he rinsed some mushrooms and soaked others, and there was no appreciable water absorption by either.

    Nitpick aside, though, great article! I think I’m going to make myself a mushroom burger ‘n greens tonight…

  2. I generally don’t eat mushrooms. I will however not bother to pick them out of my food. I just eat them. I’ve read somewhere that raw mushrooms cannot be digested by humans. Cooked is a different story supposedly. Anyone know if there is any truth to this?

  3. Although this fungi is an excellent source of selenium and a good source of iron, protein, dietary fiber and vitamin C, shiitake mushrooms are much more revered for their combination of antioxidants and other compounds, so much so that they have been used in Asian medicine for the past 6,000 years!

    Even the most strident Chinese nationalists date their histories back 5,000 years, not 6,000.

  4. Joe, it depends on the mushroom. Porcinis/cèpes are an example of a mushroom that can be eaten raw; plus, they’re delicious.

    I love shiitake mushrooms in just about anything, especially when sliced thick and sautéed.

    Food Is Love

  5. Shiitake mushrooms are also a source of Vitamin D. A single 100g serving of Shiitakes contain 96IU or 24% of you required daily intake of Vitamin D (based on a requirement of 400IU, as set out by Health Canada).
    Just how do shiitake mushrooms make Vitamin D you ask? Well, they contain a plant sterol called ergosterol, which is the precursor of Vitamin D². In fresh mushrooms, ergosterol is stimulated to convert to Vitamin D² by ultraviolet light, either from sunlight or artificial lights.
    You may have already heard that North America and Australia are currently working to add more Vitamin D to all varieties of mushroom by exposing them to ultraviolet light after harvest. The new Vitamin D Enhanced mushrooms will contain up to 100% of your daily requirement of Vitamin D.

    1. Taken from Mother Earth News article on Vitamin D and Sunshine:

      Shiitake mushrooms can be an exceptional source of vitamin D, as noted in research published in Paul Stamets’ book, Mycelium Running. Shiitake mushrooms grown and dried indoors have only 110 IU of vitamin D per 100 grams. But when the shiitakes were dried in the sun, the vitamin D content rose to 21,400 IUs per 100 grams. Even more surprising, when the mushrooms were dried with their gills facing up toward the sun, their content rose to 46,000 IU!


      1. I am looking to source Shiitake mushrooms that are high in Vitrmain D ..can you give me a contact and produced the way you have outlined above…Suzanne

    2. Hello : Can you give me a source of these mushrooms grown deliberately to develop vitamin D ? Suzanne

  6. i’ve herd that mushrooms are rich in purines. do you have any idea of what are the sources of purines in mushroom?

  7. Never really ate mushrooms until I read this article. I love them now and will throw them in my omeletes every few days. Also great with steaks or chicken.

  8. I pick many types of edible mushrooms every year in the wild. The Shittake can be grown on oak logs,you can buy growing kits for them.
    All mushrooms should be cooked to get the most nutritional benefit from them that I know of.They do not break down in your body to be used if you do not cook them. I pick maitake which boost your immune system and japanese eat alot of them .I also pick matsutake ,yellow and black chanterelles,boletes,hedgehog and a few others. Maitake D Fraction is a condensed product made from Maitake that is in capsule and liquid form available online and works great to reduce cold and flu occurences and symptoms if you take it daily.

  9. Whoa there; I read about all the anti cancer benefits and downed about 7 or 8 of them; and it put me out of service with a sick stomach for about an hour. Next time I’ll only have 2. 😉

  10. What ever do you mean when you say that the names “maitake” and “reishi” can be interchanged with “shiitake”? They’re not really even very similar.

    1. I read that and thought the same thing! They don’t look the same and the usage isn’t the same either. Reshi is for tea and that’s about it.

  11. Thanks for the article! I actually got a grow your own shiitake kit for Christmas and will soon have more than I know what to with… I found this while Googling for ideas.