Academics at Penn State University have discovered that mushrooms "without a doubt" contain the highest amounts of ergothioneine and glutathione, both important antioxidants.

Professor Robert Beelman stated that when the body uses food to produce energy, it also causes oxidative stress because some free radicals are produced. But by replenishing antioxidants in the body by consuming foods such as mushrooms, people may help protect themselves against oxidative stress.

"There's a theory - the free radical theory of aging - that's been around for a long time that says when we oxidise our food to produce energy there's a number of free radicals that are produced that are side products of that action and many of these are quite toxic," said Professor Beelman. "The body has mechanisms to control most of them, including ergothioneine and glutathione, but eventually enough accrue to cause damage, which has been associated with many of the diseases of ageing, like cancer, coronary heart disease and Alzheimer's."

In the study, researchers found that the amounts of ergothioneine and glutathione in mushrooms vary by species with the porcini species, a wild variety, containing the highest amount of the two compounds among the 13 varieties tested. The more common mushroom types, like the white button, had less of the antioxidants, but had higher amounts than most other foods. It was also found that cooking mushrooms does not seem to significantly affect the compounds.

"We found that the porcini has the highest, by far, of any we tested," added Professor Beelman. "This species is really popular in Italy where searching for it has become a national pastime."

Beelman said that future research may look at any role that ergothioneine and glutathione have in decreasing the likelihood of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

The full study results have been published in journal Food Chemistry.

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