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Do mushrooms belong to the plant kingdom or the animal kingdom? It’s not an easy question to answer. Edible mushrooms are indeed found in the vegetable section in supermarkets – yet they are not plants. These supremely versatile organisms are not animals, either. Read here about how mushrooms are classified biologically and how humans use them – from a foodstuff to medicine.
Mushrooms – neither plants nor animals
Mushrooms are organisms that can neither be classified as part of the animal kingdom, nor the plant kingdom. Mushrooms demonstrate both animal-like and plant-like characteristics. Like the majority of plants, mushrooms cannot move, i.e. they are fixed in a single location. In addition, mushroom cells are bounded by cell walls, as are plant cells. These are not composed from the carbohydrate cellulose, but from chitin, a skeleton-forming substance occurring in insects and arachnids. Unlike plants, mushrooms are unable to use sunlight as a source of energy to help them grow, since they have no chlorophyll, the green leaf pigment found in plants. Like animals, they are reliant on using animals or plants as a food source in order to thrive.
Foods – from edible mushrooms to fungi
Mushrooms are popular foods. While the majority of the wild mushrooms can only be found growing in late summer and autumn, cultivated varieties such as button, Shiitake and oyster mushrooms are available all year round. Mushrooms are not only used as a subtly-flavoured delicacy, however. They are also, for instance, used to manufacture alcoholic drinks, citric acid, vitamin C, baked goods and dairy products. Wine yeast, beer yeast and baking yeast are all well-known members of the mushroom family. The surface of soft cheeses such as Brie, Camembert and Gorgonzola is treated with a fungal culture, which encourages the maturation process. During the maturation process, a mostly white, edible layer of mould that varies by type forms on the surface of the cheese.
Mushrooms – a healthy food
Most mushrooms are composed of up to 90 percent water. They are therefore extremely low in calories and good for keeping slim. This tasty foodstuff contains valuable protein as well as essential vitamins and minerals. It’s especially worth emphasising that they contain B-vitamins (e.g. niacin), vitamin D and potassium. Significant quantities of fibre can also be found in some mushroom varieties. With a fibre content of 16 percent, truffle mushrooms are the leaders here. People suffering from high blood pressure or gout will benefit from the small amount of sodium or purine that mushrooms contain. Those with sensitive stomachs should, however, avoid consuming large quantities of raw edible mushrooms. This is because chitin and other indigestible carbohydrates make mushrooms hard to digest. This type of delicacy becomes more palatable when cooked.
Heavy metals in wild mushrooms
Wild mushrooms can be a store of heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead. Too much of these can damage the liver and nerves, as well as the nervous system. Therefore, avoid consuming more than 200g to 250g of wild mushrooms per week. Small children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should avoid wild mushrooms altogether.
Using mushrooms to prevent disease
Recent studies suggest that mushrooms have a beneficial effect on the immune system and can inhibit the growth of tumours. For example, in the context of classical naturopathic medicine, or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the Shiitake mushroom is used to help cure colds, cardiovascular diseases and allergies. The scientists at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing also recommend using this mushroom to protect against age-related complaints. According to findings by American and Japanese researchers, eating Shiitake mushrooms on a regular basis can convert the harmful LDL cholesterol in the blood into the useful HDL cholesterol and thereby help to guard against cardiovascular diseases. Despite these positive findings from research studies, eating mushrooms ought not to be a substitute for going to the doctor.