Good For Your Gut: UMass Amherst Research Examines the Benefits of Eating More Mushrooms

USDA grant will support a closer look at the edible fungi’s role in gut health

Next time you order a pizza or whip up a creamy risotto, go ahead and load on the mushrooms.

Adding more of the edible fungi into your diet may be one way to counteract the health risks associated with the Western-style diet (WSD), which often features an abundance of fatty foods and added sugars.

Zhenhua Liu
UMass Amherst associate professor Zhenhua Liu

The benefits of consuming mushrooms is the focus of new research by University of Massachusetts Amherst nutritionist Zhenhua Liu, an associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, who has received a two-year, $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

With fatty and sugary foods contributing to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and a host of other chronic health issues across the U.S. and Europe, Liu will investigate whether incorporating mushrooms into Western-style diets can improve gut health and provide a preventive buffer against disease.

Diet and lifestyle are modifiable factors that play critical roles in public health, Liu explains. His lab investigates how those factors and their metabolically related gene variants interact to influence the development of chronic diseases. He’ll collaborate with fellow nutrition faculty member Soonkyu Chung, an associate professor, and Matthew Moore, assistant professor of food science. Chung’s research focuses on identifying metabolic targets to prevent or treat obesity and insulin resistance. Moore specializes in food microbiology and virology.

“Intestinal dysfunction is thought to be one of the underlying mechanisms that contribute so significantly to the development of WSD-related diseases,” Liu notes. In previous research, the scientists have found that a rarely studied bacterium, Turicibacter, is almost completely depleted by high fat diet-induced obesity, but not genetic obesity.

Enter the common oyster mushroom. Found throughout most of the world, sundried oyster mushrooms possess a unique dietary composition rich with multiple nutrients lacking in the Western-style diet, such as dietary fiber and vitamin D. “It’s a perfect supplement as a natural whole food to improve the quality of Western-style diets,” Liu says, “with the added benefit of improving our overall gut health.”

Liu’s study will examine the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which these mushrooms improve gut health. Specifically, the UMass Amherst team will examine the mushroom’s interaction with Turicibacter in Western-style diet-related intestinal dysfunction and the effect it may have on reshaping gut microbiome.

“We hope this study will provide the mechanistic understanding of the role of Turicibacter in dietary obesity and gut health,” Liu says. “It will also provide important insight into mushrooms as a whole-food approach to improve the quality of WSD and gut health.”