Friday, May 21, 2010

MAKING ROOM FOR MUSHROOMS


With a reputation as being poisonous, at worst, or just plain icky at best, the humble mushroom should get some serious credit as a health food, say University of Alberta nutrition students.

"We were surprised to discover that fresh mushrooms provide much more of a health benefit than we originally expected," said Kaila Hauck, one of four science and nutrition undergraduate students in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science who reviewed existing research literature on the topic for a year-end capstone course project.

After combing through more than 60 scientific papers detailing the compounds of edible mushrooms, Hauck and her classmates were amazed at the array of benefits the fungi have for fending off cancer, fighting viruses and reducing inflammation in the body.

"I had no idea mushrooms had any health benefit at all, let alone several," added Hauck's classmate, Erika Janisch.

Fungi weren't at the top of Janisch's menu when she began working on the project, but she changed her mind as she got deeper into the work.

"Throughout our research we kept finding more facts on mushrooms that made me think I should be eating more of these. I never liked the taste or the texture, but when you cook them, they absorb many flavours of the foods they are cooked with. This helped me work them into my diet.

"If it weren't for this project, I wouldn't know about the health benefits of mushrooms and I would continue to look at them with disgust."

Mushrooms served as a food source for prehistoric humans. Throughout history, they've been valued by various cultures for their medicinal qualities. There are between 700 and 2,000 known species.

"One of the most significant health benefits is the potential role played in inhibiting different types of cancer tumours," said Hauck. "The World Cancer Report is predicting 15 million new cases of cancer by the year 2020, and while this is alarming, there is evidence that proper nutrition can prevent as many as one third of cancers worldwide." The beta-glucans found in the mushroom can play a role in cancer prevention, as can other helpful compounds, such as selenium, Hauck said.

"In fact, mushrooms provide more selenium than any other fruit or vegetable," which is a compound believed to decrease the incidence of some human cancers. Selenium is also being used along with chemotherapy in clinical trials, resulting in enhanced therapeutic effects, Hauck added.

In addition, the studies show that mushrooms contain antioxidants, which help reduce the risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.

Though mushrooms were considered to be an oddball research project at first, Hauck and Janisch are pleased their investigation provided a heaping helping of experience, along with a newfound respect for mushroom burgers.

"It fascinated me that with a bit of research you can learn so much, more than studying for an exam," said Janisch, who, equipped with both theory and practice, now feels ready to enter the work world. "Research sticks with you and [a capstone project] is a great way to pull everything together that you've learned in four years of school."

"Projects like this are a good way for students to learn about issues pertinent to the food industry, and to get a first taste of research," added Lingyun Chen, an assistant professor of plant protein and chemistry in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science who supervised the students.

"Because it's a fungi, people may be squeamish about eating mushrooms, but they are definitely a superstar in the food world," Hauck said.

University of Alberta

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