Is your cholesterol higher than you’d like it to be? Then add some mushrooms to the mix. New research out of Japan found that various exotic mushrooms — shiitake in particular — could help lower the risk of heart disease by boosting the body’s ability to banish artery-clogging cholesterol.

The study published in Experimental Biology and Medicine compared the effects on cholesterol levels among rats fed different types of mushroom powder for four weeks. On average, the mushroom-munching subjects enjoyed an average 28% drop in overall cholesterol. Shiitake outshone other varieties, enhancing excretion of cholesterol by a whopping 250%. Shiitakes also lowered “bad” LDL cholesterol by 21%.

Why might this be? Mushrooms contain plenty of prebiotic fiber — also found in bananas, leeks, onions, garlic, artichokes and asparagus. When this fiber ferments in your large intestines, it creates by-products (butyrates) that hinder cholesterol production in the liver. In fact, the shiitake diet increased butyrate production by 261%. Beyond cholesterol control, prebiotic fiber also helps strengthen bones, feed protective gastrointestinal bacteria and enhance fat metabolism, possibly aiding in weight loss.

 Shiitakes are also a top source of two elusive but important vitamins: D (providing 70%) and B5 (supplying a third of daily needs).

Published November 1, 2010