STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Mushrooms, the edible kind, have been used in Eastern medicine for centuries to treat everything from asthma to gout. And now they're being marketed in the West as functional or medicinal mushrooms. So what's the evidence that they're actually good for your health? NPR's April Fulton takes a look.
APRIL FULTON, BYLINE: To find a really good variety of mushrooms, I went to Mitsuwa.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you have a favorite mushroom?
FULTON: It's a Japanese market in a drab shopping center in Los Angeles. But when you step inside, you see color - Japanese snacks in bright packages, vendors hawking steaming bowls of ramen, and there are rows and rows of mushrooms.
YUMI KUWATA: This is very healthy.
FULTON: Yumi Kuwata is the manager here. She shows me around.
KUWATA: Shimeji and enoki and shiitake mushroom.
FULTON: Shimeji, enoki and shiitake are her top sellers, but she always has at least 10 varieties. Kuwata says her customers buy mushrooms because they're healthy and low in calories.
KUWATA: You know that the mushroom is pretty much calorie zero percent. My customer know this about Japanese food, very healthy cuisine, so that's what they're expecting.
FULTON: But mushrooms offer a lot more than low calories. They have nutrients and compounds which fight inflammation in the body. Think of them as the superheroes of the fungi kingdom.
Researchers in the lab have reported all kinds of promising benefits, from killing cancer in human cells to reducing insulin resistance in mice. As for research on people, there hasn't been as much. Shiitake mushroom extract seemed to help prolong the lives of stomach cancer patients undergoing chemo, and, in fact, doctors in Japan now prescribe them for that purpose. And then there's the hen-of-the-woods. Extracts from this mushroom seem to stimulate the immune system of some breast cancer patients.
It's hard to draw big conclusions, though, because these studies are small. Viki Sabaratnam is a scientist at the University of Malaya. She's studying how mushrooms might someday help fight off brain disease like Alzheimer's.
VIKI SABARATNAM: We have shown in lab experiments, yes, some of these properties are there, but it's quite a long way to go.
FULTON: Until, she says, scientists can say for sure just how useful mushrooms are for humans. Still, that hasn't stopped the dietary supplement industry from jumping on reports of mushroom health benefits.
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FULTON: There are teas, coffees and pills that contain extracts of mushrooms that promise to reduce stress and jumpstart your brain.
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FULTON: Megan Ware is a dietitian in Orlando. She sees the potential health benefits of mushrooms, but she warns...
MEGAN WARE: If you're eating cheeseburgers and fries for lunch every day and you eat a couple of mushrooms along with it, that doesn't mean it's going to lower your risk for heart disease or diabetes or any of those lifestyle conditions just because you added a couple mushrooms to your burger.
FULTON: Maybe one day science will be able to prove that mushrooms really can help prevent and treat disease. And if not, well, Yumi Kuwata at the Japanese market points out that mushrooms are really delicious. So what do you have to lose?
What's your favorite mushroom?
KUWATA: Nameko - the slimy one.
FULTON: April Fulton, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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