Shiitake mushrooms — Carcinogenic?

Dear Alice,

I have been putting mushrooms in my family meals often over the last several months. I mainly use shiitake. I just read some mushrooms may contain carcinogens. I'm worried because I've been feeding mushrooms to my family. Are mushrooms healthy or not?

Dear Reader,

Before you say “Oh shiitake!,” mushrooms are generally a healthy addition to your diet. Not only do they have a number of nutritional health benefits, but recent studies have shown that mushrooms possess a number of immune-boosting and anti-carcinogenic properties.

Cancer is a category of diseases caused by uninhibited cell growth in a certain area of the body. An individual's risk of getting cancer in their lifetime can increase based on their exposure to carcinogens, a class of substances that can damage DNA in the body and cause mutations, leading to cancerous cells. An anti-carcinogen, on the other hand, is a substance that may protect against cancer development by preventing these mutations. 

Mushrooms are considered anti-carcinogenic due to a few of their innate properties:

  • Ergothioneine & glutathione, two powerful antioxidants, which help protect cells from damage and may help prevent cancer. 
  • Beta-glucans and other polysaccharides, which may influence the immune system and help prevent tumors. 
  • Lentinan, found in shiitake mushrooms, which stimulates the immune system and may play a role in slowing tumor growth.

Other bioactive components of mushrooms, such as vitamin D, are known to improve gut health and intestinal immunity after eating them and may have positive effects on the body's entire immune system as well. 

Because of these healthful properties, mushrooms and mushroom extract have been used throughout the world for many years to increase immune health, and they have even used by some as a supplemental or alternative cancer treatment. Preliminary research suggests that mushrooms may decrease side effects associated with cancer treatments such as chemotherapy while improving quality of life, potentially due to their anti-inflammatory and immune properties. While more research is needed to prove if mushrooms can be an effective cancer treatment, the anti-carcinogenic properties are well-researched. 

Hopefully this alleviates your concerns about adding mushrooms to your family meals. If you have other nutrition questions, you may consider checking out the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archive. In the meantime, continue having fun cooking with fungi!

Last updated Dec 24, 2021
Originally published Aug 29, 2014

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