Shiitake mushrooms are known for their unique appearance — they have large, brown caps with a pale underside — as well as their various purported health benefits.
In this article, we’ll talk about the potential health benefits of consuming shiitake mushrooms, as well as consider the possible risks and benefits of eating them raw.
Is it better to eat mushrooms raw or cooked?
All mushrooms contain a compound called chitin, which is found in the cellular walls of mushrooms.
Chitin is a very hard substance.
It is found in lobster and mollusk shells as well as mushrooms.
The majority of humans are unable to digest chitin at all, as we lack the requisite digestive enzymes.
This results in more difficult digestion, and it also means that our bodies will have more limited access to the health-promoting nutrients in mushrooms.
The cooking process makes mushroom digestion (and subsequent nutrient absorption in our bodies) easier by breaking down chitin so that your digestive system doesn’t have to work so hard.
Therefore, there is a good chance that eating mushrooms raw may irritate your digestion, and it also likely prevent your body from absorbing all of the nutrition and beneficial compounds found in the mushroom.
The bottom line is that you can eat mushrooms raw if you prefer the taste, or for the sake of convenience (for example, if you discover an edible variety of wild mushrooms while foraging, and want to taste them before arriving home to cook them up).
But from a digestion and nutrient absorption perspective, it’s likely better to cook mushrooms before eating them.
What compounds are in shiitake mushrooms that might make them dangerous?
A 2015 study conducted by the University of Florida found that in people who ate a 4-ounce serving of dried shiitake mushrooms every day for four weeks, there was an improvement in bloodwork that indicated a beneficial effect on the immune system, as well as a reduction in inflammation.
The most probable explanation for the benefits of shiitake mushrooms is that they contain a compound called lentinan.
Lentinan is a beta-glucan, which is a specific type of polysaccharide.
Lentinan is thought to enhance the action of the body’s innate immune system, so much so that studies have even been done to explore whether or not it could be used as part of a cancer-fighting regimen to enhance the action of pharmaceuticals and chemotherapy.
But lentinan also has potentially negative effects on humans who eat shiitake mushrooms.
Lentinan is thought to be connected with a condition that some people develop after eating raw or undercooked shiitake mushrooms, known as shiitake dermatitis.
Shiitake dermatitis involves a red, itchy rash, sometimes accompanied by painful welts.
A possible explanation is that in sensitive people, the stimulation to the immune system that lentinan prompts is just too much.
In essence, these people have an overactive immune system, which results in a flood of immune system-induced inflammation that presents itself in the form of skin irritation.
Can you eat shiitake mushroom stems?
There are some varieties of mushrooms that have stems that are more or less edible, as they have a more tender texture.
But shiitake mushroom stems are much more woody and tough and are therefore less appealing to eat.
However, adding them to soups, stews, or stocks is more desirable, because the longer cooking process breaks down the tough texture of the stems and also imbues the soup with a deep umami flavor.
Also, the longer you simmer the soup, the more nutrients from the mushroom stems will be extracted into the liquid.
What happens if you eat shiitake mushroom stems?
Can shiitake mushrooms make you sick?
The factors above are more likely due to a sensitivity to mushrooms.
In this case, the presentation of symptoms may come and go, depending on a variety of factors.
But it’s also possible that you have a mushroom allergy, in which case the reaction is likely to occur any and every time you eat mushrooms.
Shiitake mushrooms are a unique, intriguing type of edible fungus that warrants inclusion in many healthy diets.
Watch this video for more information about shiitake mushrooms.