What to do when the latest superfood is your nutritional nemesis
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I’ve been reading a lot about mushrooms lately. The apparently mood-boosting, immune-enhancing, cancer-preventing (more on that in a sec) fungi is the superfood du jour. I have two issues with this.
First, let’s address the term ‘superfood’. As Dr Sarah Berry, Associate Professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at King's College London, explained on the Zoe podcast last week: ‘It’s your whole diet that counts – you can’t use a single food like a drug, even if it’s labelled as super.’ Everything from broccoli to blueberries, via pomegranates and green tea, has been branded a ‘superfood’. And there is no doubt that these foods are really good for you; Dr Berry’s point is that you can’t eat a junky diet most of the time and then expect a handful of blueberries to protect your health. You have to look at the big picture, and a wide variety of nutrients is the best thing overall. But mushrooms do seem to have been singled out by many for their benefits, particularly in terms of cancer.
If you have a passing interest in nutrition, you might be aware of recent controversy involving two brothers going by the name of The Happy Pear. They shared a video on social media promising ‘five things to reduce your risk of breast cancer,’ which included eating mushrooms. Dr Liz O’Riordan, a breast surgeon who has had breast cancer and is brilliant at calling out unsubstantiated assertions as ‘nutribollocks’, pointed out that there is no evidence behind this claim.
The official line from Cancer Research UK is: ‘There is currently no evidence that any type of mushroom can prevent or cure cancer.’ Although some compounds found in mushrooms have been shown to stop or slow the growth of cancer cells in laboratory studies, ‘we have to be cautious about such early research. Substances that can kill cells in laboratory conditions don't necessarily turn out to be useful treatments in people.’
Yes, there have been trials where mushrooms are prescribed alongside cancer treatment, and seem to reduce side effects and improve overall outcomes. But proving a reduction in cancer risk would involve a large trial over many years, costing millions, so that has not happened.
Having said that, acknowledging there is no ‘silver bullet’ single ingredient shouldn't mean dismissing nutrient-rich foods altogether. It’s pretty clear that mushrooms have many benefits - such as vitamins, polyphenols, fibre and prebiotics - so you should eat them if you like them.
But that brings me to my second issue. What do you do if you hate mushrooms?
I can’t bear the slimy, weirdly-meaty mould; even looking at the picture above is making me queasy. I have offended hosts at dinner parties, shuddered over brunch as a friend ate them on toast and once even hid mushrooms in my handbag when they were served as an amuse-bouche in a fancy restaurant and it would have been too embarrassing to leave them.
Generally, I don’t approve of supplements (other than vitamin D in winter, or to correct a deficiency such as iron) because I believe it’s better to get nutrients from food. Also, the industry is not well regulated, so you could spend a lot of money on fillers and bulking agents. BUT if I don’t like mushrooms, could it be worth taking a mushroom supplement?
Last week, I attended a presentation by Hifas da Terra, a biotech brand specialising in mycology (the study of fungi), where I learned about the benefits of ‘medicinal mushrooms’ like reishi and lion’s mane and that, perhaps, other countries are ahead of us on this one. In Japan for example, mushroom polysaccharides have been approved for use in the public healthcare system since 1984 as part of integrative therapy for digestive cancers.
Then, also last week, I went to a Feel Good Food event hosted by Melissa Hemsley at Future Dreams House, where I met Toral Shah, a nutritional scientist and chef with a BSc in Cell Biology and an MSc in Nutritional Medicine. Having been through breast cancer herself, Toral has a special interest in reducing the risk of recurrence. I asked her what she takes and her answer was… a mushroom supplement!
So, while Hifas da Terra products are not cheap, I’m going to give them a go, perhaps on an every-other-day basis, while also trying to force myself to learn to like mushrooms. I’ve been advised that chopping them up small in a veggie burger is a good way to start. And Melissa Hemsley suggested I try her Shiitake Mushroom Adobo, the recipe for which is in her brilliant new book, and you can also watch it as an Instagram cook-along. She said I could substitute half the mushrooms for something like broccoli initially, while I build up my tolerance.
As a teenager, I did force myself to like olives because I thought they were sophisticated, and I love them now, so it is possible. Wish me luck.
This week I’m…
Getting ready for Glastonbury. I’m excited to see Self Esteem, Wet Leg, Wolf Alice, Olivia Rodrigo and Haim… but you’ll mostly find me in the Healing Field.
Planning to experiment with popping cordyceps (known as the ‘energy mushroom’), rather than relying on booze to power me through the weekend.
Recovering by watching Snowflake Mountain on Netflix, in which a group of clueless kidults are sent to the wilderness for a survival retreat. Starts 22 June.
Reading Your Health In Your Hands, the first book by A&E doctor and TikTok sensation Dr Emeka Okorocha, out 23 June.