Shiitake mushrooms are a type of fungus, a plant that has no roots, leaves, flowers or seeds. They have been used medicinally for thousands of years in China. Human studies showing the benefits of shiitake mushrooms when consumed as part of a balanced diet are limited but have shown promise.

One of the most studied benefits of shiitakes is their ability to boost the immune system. Shiitake mushrooms have special compounds that can help immune cells called macrophages do a better job at destroying potentially cancerous cells. They also contain a compound reported to reduce tumor activity and lessen side effects of cancer treatment. Shiitakes may help protect against viruses due to a compound that prevents viruses from multiplying.

Studies show shiitakes may also have heart-healthy benefits. The mushrooms contain a compound that helps to lower total blood cholesterol. They also have certain compounds that keep blood vessels healthy and lower inflammation. Additionally, shiitakes contain antioxidants which help protect cells from free radical damage.

Shiitake mushrooms are a rich source of B vitamins and also contain some iron. When exposed to sunlight, any mushroom variety, including shiitakes, can be a good dietary source of vitamin D. Shiitakes have a rich earthy flavor that can lend a satisfying note to your dishes. To clean mushrooms, wipe them with a damp towel to remove any dirt. To prepare, sauté them in olive oil or broth for 7 to 8 minutes.

Uses for shiitake mushrooms:

Stir-fry shiitakes with your favorite vegetables, meat or tofu and serve over brown rice

Fill an omelet with sautéed shiitakes and Swiss chard

Roast shiitakes and onions for a savory side dish or sandwich topper

Blend shiitakes and other mushroom varieties for a creamy mushroom soup

Chop shiitakes, carrots and onions and add to tomato sauce for a meatless Bolognese

Toss whole wheat pasta with sautéed sliced shiitakes, garlic and herbs

By: Amanda Thomas, RD, LDN

Photo credit: Healingthebody.com