While we might officially favour mushrooms of the ‘magic’ variety, we are big fans of fungi in all its forms. Each mushroom has countless good qualities and health benefits worth writing home about! The fascination with fungi shows no sign of abating as we learn more, and more, about these fabulous fellas! 

And, as there is so much to be said about each one, we have decided to put some of these superfood superstars under the spotlight, so you can really get to know them. We’ve already tackled Lion’s Mane, and Reishi but now it’s time for another mushroom. Unlike the previous two you’ve almost certainly come across it in the supermarket or at a restaurant. The shiitake is a culinary star in its native East Asia, featuring heavily in Japanese and Chinese cooking. Its popularity has spread across the world, and it has also become prized as an excellent meat substitute for vegetarians. 

But, we’re not just here to discuss the shiitake’s umami tang. It also has a whole host of medicinal qualities that bump it to a ‘superfood’ that we’ve just gotta share with you! So without further ado, let’s dive into the scintillating story of this smashing shroom! This is Spotlight on: Shiitake Mushroom …

Although the shiitake now has the distinction of being the second most popular mushroom in the world (after its cutesy cousin the button mushroom), it has only relatively recently come to prominence in the West. In its native Japan and China it has been revered as a medicinal tool for millenia. Its usage being encouraged for everything from headaches, to stomach pains and improving digestive function.

The Shiitake Mushroom

The shiitake has a curved cap that can range from tan to dark brown, and grows between 5 and 10cm in diameter. In the wild they tend to grow on decaying hardwood trees, and although over 80% of them are cultivated in Japan, they are also produced in China, the US, Canada and Singapore. They are consumed dried, fresh, or as supplements. Dried is probably the most popular shiitake form — they can be stored much longer this way, and once soaked in water they soften again, but with a stronger flavour and texture. Funnily enough these shrooms also have a lot of the same amino acids as meat, as though doubling down on their famed ‘meaty’ qualities. They also gift us with fiber, B vitamins, copper, lipids, polysaccharides, sterols and terpenoids, among others. All of which are totally fab for your body!

And that’s not all — here are 5 ways that shiitake are thought to supercharge your health:

They Boost Your Immune System

Shiitake is touted as being a super-booster of the immune system. This is thought to be due to the polysaccharides that it contains. There have been numerous studies into the effects of shiitake on the immune system, though the majority of them have been on lab animals. These results look extremely promising however, with one recent study on mice finding that a supplement derived from shiitake could reduce the decline of the immune system caused by ageing.

Additionally, a study from 2011, one of the few that was actually on humans, also had positive findings. Fifty-two healthy participants consumed either 5g or 10g of shiitake mushrooms everyday for four weeks. After the four weeks the participants were found to have increased immune stimulation — characterised by a higher level of T cell and natural killer cell activity. 

They Are Heart Heroes

Shiitake mushrooms are also known as heart-heroes! This is because they contain three cholesterol lowering compounds. These are: 

Beta glucans: A type of fiber that can lower cholesterol 

Eritadenine: A compound which reduces the activity of an enzyme that produces cholesterol. 

Sterols: These inhibit cholesterol absorption in your gut. 

There have been various studies on lab rats that have found that shiitake extract can have a positive effect on blood pressure, liver fat and cholesterol. On lab rats fed a high-fat diet, there were less of the negative effects associated with this sort of diet when the rats were also administered shiitake extract.

Anti-Cancer Compounds

The same polysaccharides that boost your immune system are also thought to have anti-cancer properties. For example, when your immune system is activated by the polysaccharide called lentinan it is given more power to fight tumours.  Lentinan has also been found to fight the growth and spread of leukemia cells. 

Bigging Up Bone Strength

Mushrooms are the only non-animal based source of vitamin D (apart from the sun of course!) The more UV mushrooms are exposed to when growing, the higher their levels of vitamin D — makes sense don’t it? Vitamin D is essential for strong bones. In combination with calcium, shiitake can help improve and maintain bone health. 

Awesome Antibacterial Potential 

Recent studies have been looking into the antibacterial and antimicrobial potential of shiitake mushrooms. Mushrooms, as they grow on decaying materials, need to have these qualities to survive. It seems that this can be isolated to benefit humans. In a study dating from 2009, shiitake mushroom extract was found to have antimicrobial qualities against 85% of the organisms it was tested on. This kind of research is essential to find new antimicrobial sources, as more and more pathogens become resistant to antibiotics. 

So, there you have it! The shiitake mushroom is that unicorn of the food world — both tasty and good for you. What’s your favourite way to eat this shroom? Let us know in the comments below!