Lovers of mushrooms know the magic these earthy delights bring to just about any dish. Now cancer researchers are beginning to uncover the potential of many mushrooms, including the common white button. Components of button mushrooms may help prevent breast cancer according to a study in the Journal of Nutrition. Estrogen promotes breast cancer cell growth in 60 percent of breast cancer patients, says lead researcher Shiuan Chen, Ph.D., of the City of Hope's Beckman Research Institute in California. Other mushrooms with similar effects include shiitake, portobello, and crimini.
Additional anti-cancer properties of mushrooms may come from their ability to inhibit tumor growth by boosting the immune system. Plant chemicals called beta-glucans -- found heavily in maitake and shiitake mushrooms -- are believed to activate immune cells that fight infection.
Medically speaking, mushrooms are seasoned veterans. Compounds extracted from various mushrooms have been used in medicines in Japan for decades to treat some gastric and cervical cancers. Studies from Asia suggest that some of the plant chemicals in maitake and shiitake mushrooms also reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
Nutritionally, mushrooms are rich in potassium and selenium, a trace mineral known for its antioxidant properties and tested recently for its ability to combat prostate cancer and cardiovascular disease. They are also rich in three important B vitamins: riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid. These nutrients promote healthy skin and help regulate the nervous system.
Fresh mushrooms often have a more subtle flavor than dried mushrooms. The intense flavor of dried mushrooms makes them a terrific seasoning ingredient. When ready to use dried mushrooms, soak them in warm water until they are soft and pliable.
Shiitake -- (shee-TAH-kay) These have a rich, earthy taste with a hint of smokiness. Let them strut in more intensely flavored dishes.
Maitake -- (my-TAH-kay) A meaty texture with a woodsy taste make these a good match for pasta, smoked meats, or risotto.
Enoki -- (eh-no-key) Heat tends to wilt and toughen these tiny mild mushrooms. Best served raw on salads.
Oyster -- With their mild flavor, these mushrooms do best in subtle soups or sautes.
Portobello -- These are the big humdingers that make good meat substitutes. Great on the grill or sauteed.
White button -- You'll have no trouble finding this common variety. Slice them for nibbling raw, or toss them in sauces or soups.