Originally printed in the January 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Retailers and restaurant/hospitality will have an array of opportunities to connect consumers to the mindset that the concern for immunity will have long-lasting influences.
Consumer concern for immune health is on the rise, with many viewing the food we eat as playing an essential role in supporting a healthy immune system. Mushroom growers have taken note. With mushrooms featuring an array of micronutrients that support immune health, such as Vitamin D, B Vitamins and Selenium, the mushroom industry is leaning further into marketing how mushrooms can meet the nutrition needs that are important to today’s shoppers. This can range from collaborating with retailers to highlight mushroom nutrition facts on packaging, to specialized consumer nutrition campaigns, to introducing new products.
Curtis Jurgensmeyer, CEO of J-M Farms in Miami, OK, notes how raising awareness of mushroom nutrition is key to meeting shoppers’ current needs. “The nutritional benefits mushrooms bring to the table have become increasingly popular over the past few years, but even more so since COVID has developed,” he says. “We know that Vitamin D and Selenium are key immunity-building nutrients, and mushrooms can offer both.”
J-M Farms has taken to social media to share easy weeknight recipes that help everyday working families include healthy mushrooms in their day-to-day diets. The company’s marketing strategy also includes messaging the importance of maintaining a balanced diet and how mushrooms can help you achieve that. “With more and more education on how to incorporate them into meals as well as The Blend [blending meat with finely chopped fresh mushrooms], they’re quickly becoming a staple item on many consumers’ grocery lists,” says Jurgensmeyer. “We want our retailers to promote to consumers the versatility of mushrooms as well as the nutrition benefits they provide.”
To help increase awareness of the nutritional attributes of mushrooms, Buona Foods in Landenberg, PA, is working with its retail partners to expand the nutritional panels on mushroom packaging. According to Buona’s president Gale Ferranto, “Our goal is to highlight additional health benefits of mushrooms that consumers want and need most.”
In late 2020, Buona Foods launched a new product, the 100% Mushroom Gourmet Crumble. It is a finely diced blend of washed and ready-to-eat fresh baby bella, white and portabella mushrooms that is packed in a clear, top-sealed cup with a shaker lid for convenience. “Our goal is to encourage consumers to use healthy mushrooms in ways they have not thought of before, like frittatas, blended burgers, tacos and more,” says Ferranto.
It is anticipated that the concern for immunity will long influence consumers, and Sonya Beltrán, director of operations at First Generation Farms in Avondale, PA, says retailers can offer an array of opportunities to connect customers to this mindset. “Consumers eat with their eyes. We all do. Retailers could have an advantage by sharing — for example — three ways you can incorporate mushrooms into your meals, all the while showcasing how they can contribute to a healthy immune system. Mushrooms are so versatile, but consumers need to be shown that.”
Mushroom Council Wants to ‘Feed Your Immune System’
In January, the Mushroom Council launched a timely education and promotion initiative centered on the theme of “Feed Your Immune System.” As Beltrán suggests, the campaign fuses messaging about immunity with messaging about recipe versatility in website and blog content, digital advertising, social media, partnership with nutrition influencers and media outreach.
The online hub for the campaign, FeedYourImmuneSystem.com, informs consumers about the micronutrients found in mushrooms and other select foods that play a key role in supporting the immune system. Through animated and interactive colorful graphics, consumers can discover tips for meeting the recommended daily allowances of these nutrients in their diets.
As part of this effort, the Mushroom Council partnered with registered dietitians, Emily Weeks, RDN, LD and Chelsey Amer, RD, to develop new recipes that pair mushrooms with these other ingredients to demonstrate how they can be combined to increase consumption of nutrients that have a positive role in supporting a healthy immune system. Recipes include the clever Creamy Spinach & Mushroom Lasagna Soup and the creative Asian BBQ Sesame Salmon with Noodles and Veggies, which include mushrooms, broccoli, and sugar snap peas.
The Mushroom Council’s social media activity for the entire first quarter of 2021 is centered on the “Feed Your Immune System” message to help make the greatest impact. The content incorporates “Immunity 101” information, strategies for including mushrooms and other healthy foods in your diet, shopping tips, and more. Mushroom Council media outreach efforts will also support the important messages of the campaign, and a special effort is being made to ensure that foodservice operators and distributors are reached as well.
The Mushroom Council is also collaborating with the Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) on the effort, including developing a retail signage campaign and creating a “Have a Plant” virtual Cook Along event focused on immune health.
“Educating consumers on the role mushrooms can play in supporting your immune system is a top priority this year,” says Kevin Delaney, vice president of sales and marketing at To-Jo Mushrooms, in Avondale, PA. “The Council’s campaign provides a lot of great opportunities to cross merchandise with other vitamin-rich vegetables. Our industry has always done a great job of promoting the flavor and versatility of mushrooms. Today, we have an opportunity to connect with consumers on a greater level as the health benefits of eating mushrooms are becoming more relevant than ever.”
“We are invested in the importance of the ‘Feed Your Immune System’ program because it’s about more than mushrooms and the micronutrients found within them,” says Bart Minor, president and CEO of the Mushroom Council. “It spotlights an array of additional produce items and their respective nutritional qualities that are key for supporting your immune system. We hope this campaign will inform consumers on how they can easily ‘Have a Plant’ – as the Produce for Better Health Foundation advises – to make an impact at a time when people are looking to make choices that support their wellness.”
“We are excited about this program and will continue to prioritize immunity as a key message and concern throughout the year,” Minor adds. “We truly feel we are doing this in service for consumers at a time when this information has never been more critical.”
Retailers and Media Agree: Mushrooms Are a Top Trend
The immunity marketing initiatives are cresting just as retailers and media nationwide name mushrooms a trending food for 2021, like they did in 2020, with mushrooms appearing in more than 50 trend lists from the Whole Foods annual trend forecast to the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” list. CNN last year dubbed mushrooms the “new grocery aisle celebrities.”
This year, mushrooms again placed atop the Whole Foods “Top Ten Food Trends for 2021” — among the most prestigious and widely circulated trend predictors — in the “Wellness Through Food” trend, where they stated that the trend will accelerate in 2021. Kroger declared “Mushroom Mania” as part of its 2021 trend forecast, highlighting the nutrition benefits of mushrooms as well as their starring role as a functional ingredient. The Today Show noted mushrooms as the year’s “most essential ingredient.”
At the same time, Phil Lempert, renowned grocery influencer and advisor who is referred to as the “Supermarket Guru,” has named The Blend, the process of blending finely chopped mushrooms with ground meat, a top 2021 trend. In an article in Forbes, he said, “What will the future hold in 2021?… More blended foods — both made at home and bought ready-made in stores building on the success of the Mushroom Council and James Beard Foundation’s blended burger success that is already being extended to other proteins and other vegetables.”
Interest in mushrooms likely will not change even when the pandemic eventually eases. A survey conducted in April, 2020, by Dr. Mark Lang of the University of Tampa suggests the demand has staying power. One-fourth of consumers plan to cook more with fresh mushrooms “after things get back to normal.” Another 63% plan to use mushrooms “about the same.”
With 2021 well underway, all indications point to mushrooms continuing to hold their position as a top trending food, like they were in 2020.
The reason? Mushrooms align with the time we’re living — meeting consumers’ demand for recipe versatility and nutrition, especially as it relates to immune support.