Ergothioneine and glutathione. Hardly household names when it comes to health, but some scientists believe these antioxidants can play a vital role in fighting aging and its associated diseases. A new study has found mushrooms to be packed with these compounds, and in good news for fans of funghi-finished pizzas, high temperatures don't seem to alter their effects.

One school of thought when it comes to aging is known as the free radical theory. Free radicals are oxygen atoms with unpaired electrons that arise as a by-product of the process in which the body converts food into energy. These highly reactive atoms then travel around the body in search of other electrons to pair up with, causing oxidative damage to the cells, proteins and even DNA in their path.

"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 aging, like cancer, coronary heart disease and Alzheimer's," said Robert Beelman, professor emeritus of food science and director of the Penn State Center for Plant and Mushroom Products for Health.

So keeping the body brimming with antioxidants is a possible way of softening the blow. A research team led by Beelman has now found that mushrooms contain unusually high amounts of both ergothioneine and glutathione, and when it comes to getting both compounds in a single bite, there may be no better source.

"What we found is that, without a doubt, mushrooms are highest dietary source of these two antioxidants taken together, and that some types are really packed with both of them," said Beelman.

Beelman and his team tested 13 different species of mushroom, and found that while all contained both compounds, their concentrations varied greatly. Porcini was the type that, by far, packed the most anti-oxidative punch. Other more common types like the white button weren't quite so rich in ergothioneine and glutathione, but still contained more than most other foods.

Other interesting tidbits from the study include the discovery of a correlation between the amounts of ergothioneine and glutathione, meaning mushrooms that were high in one were also high in the other. The team also says the compounds were stable under heat and therefore cooking them should have no affect on their benefits. From here, the researchers will explore how mushroom-rich diets could decrease the likelihood of neurodegenerative diseases.

"It's preliminary, but you can see that countries that have more ergothioneine in their diets, countries like France and Italy, also have lower incidences of neurodegenerative diseases, while people in countries like the United States, which has low amounts of ergothioneine in the diet, have a higher probability of diseases like Parkinson's Disease and Alzheimer's," said Beelman. "Now, whether that's just a correlation or causative, we don't know. But, it's something to look into, especially because the difference between the countries with low rates of neurodegenerative diseases is about 3 milligrams per day, which is about five button mushrooms each day."

The research was published in the journal Food Chemistry.

Source: Pennsylvania State University

View gallery - 3 images