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What to know about the health benefits -- and risks -- of mushrooms.

Andrew Weil, MD, is a huge fan of mushrooms. A longtime mushroom hunter, he seeks them out because of their taste and health benefits. And Weil, founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center, likes to share his enthusiasm for these fungi.

"I have always extolled both their nutritional and health benefits, in part to help dispel the general fear of mushrooms...," Weil tells WebMD in an email. He says research supports the use of select medicinal mushrooms for their anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, and immune-enhancing properties.

Not all mushrooms are created equal. Weil advises seeking out the more exotic varieties that are becoming increasingly available on supermarket shelves. Here are four that Weil says are particularly good for you:

  • Shiitake: Animal studies have shown that these flavorful and readily available mushrooms have anti-tumor, cholesterol-lowering, and antiviral properties. Weil recommends fresh and dried shiitakes.
  • Enoki: These slender, mild-flavored mushrooms appear to have significant anti-cancer and immune-enhancing effects, Weil says.
  • Maitake: Also known as 'hen of the woods,' these mushrooms may have anti-cancer, antiviral, and immune-enhancing properties. They may also reduce blood pressure and blood sugar, says Weil, who likes to grill maitakes with teriyaki sauce.
  • Oyster: Less expensive -- and less flavorful -- than shiitakes, these mushrooms may also provide some protection against cancer, Weil says.

Common Mushrooms

Weil is less enthusiastic about white, or button, mushrooms, a species of mushroom that also includes Portobellos and criminis.

“Button mushrooms do possess some health benefits, but not the general health benefits found in Asian mushrooms,” Weil says.

Weil also says that these commonly available mushrooms contain natural substances called agaritines, which studies show may increase the risk of tumors in animals.

It’s important to keep in mind that mushrooms are not the only food to contain small amounts of potential carcinogens, or cancer-causing substances. For example, acrylamides, which form when certain foods are cooked at high temperature, have caused tumors in mice and rats. They are found in French fries.

Although there’s no conclusive evidence that agaritines found in mushrooms are harmful to people, Weil likes to play it safe. He advises people to avoid eating large quantities of them.

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