To most of us, mushrooms are a slightly unnerving mystery. Not really a plant, definitely not an animal, they occupy a weird natural nether zone into which most members of the public rarely decide to peer. News coverage ranges from theories that all mushrooms may actually be aliens, to tales of restaurants accidentally poisoning their patrons with a poorly identified morel. There’s something scary about an ingredient that grows on dead bodies and can simultaneously be totally delicious and deadly.
However, even though they look more like they belong in a graveyard than a supermarket, there is good news for anyone who sees past the strangeness and actively enjoys the occasional risotto. According to researchers from The University of Singapore, there is strong evidence to suggest that eating more than two standard portions of mushrooms per week - equivalent to about 300g - may be an incredibly effective way to protect against cognitive deterioration as we get older. When it comes to memory, a portion of porcini clearly doesn’t leave you with mushroom for improvement.
This incredible effect may well be down to the presence of a chemical compound called ergothioneine. Found in abundance across all mushroom varieties, ergothioneine acts as both a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, becoming increasingly important as we get older. According to study lead Dr Irwin Cheah, a senior research fellow from NUS Biochemistry, “...humans are unable to synthesise (ergothioneine) on their own...But it can be obtained from dietary sources, one of the main ones being mushrooms."
Dr Cheah’s research focused on 600 Chinese seniors, living in Singapore and over the age of 60, and assessed them for “demographic information, medical history, psychological factors, and dietary habits, as well as their blood pressure, weight, height, handgrip, and walking speed,” according to reporting from Business Insider. All in all, the study took six years, between 2011 and 2017 to be completed, the results of which were finally published this week.
Dr Cheah’s conclusions were staggering. After comparing the results of his study against a checklist measuring cognitive functions like language, attention, and visuospatial abilities, he and his team concluded that “a deficiency in the ergothioneine compound could be a risk factor for neurodegeneration diseases, such as Alzheimer's.” This in turn seems to prove the original hypothesis that a diet rich in commonly consumed mushrooms like oyster, chestnut and shiitake, can be extremely beneficial for preventing long term cognitive deterioration.
For anyone who remains freaked out by the fleshy pulp of a mushroom cap, Dr Cheah’s discovery may come as a bit of a let down. Nonetheless, if his conclusions are correct, the impact could be enormous for a food that has always seemed to lots of us like it was just too delicious to be healthy. It may be slightly more stodgy than a salad, but it looks like mushrooms may yet earn their stripes as a health food.