This healthy alternative is cropping up in new food-centric places.
After all these years mushroom sales are still increasing. These tasty but healthy morsels are being used in a variety of new and interesting ways. And varieties unheard of a generation ago are captivating consumers.
There has been a steady increase in per capita mushroom consumption over the decades, according to USDA Economic Research Service statistics, from a quarter pound of fresh mushrooms in the 1960s, to a robust 2.5-plus pounds in the first decade of the new millennium.
Health-conscious consumers are mixing them with ground meat in order to reduce their intake of animal fat and cholesterol — a use with great potential considering the volume of beef we consume.
“The heart healthy message helps,” says Michael Richmond, sales manager at Champ’s Mushrooms, Aldergrove, British Columbia, Canada. “Mushrooms are very good meat substitutes. The dip in meat consumption is connected to the increase in mushrooms. The meat industry is so massive that even with a 2 percent dip, if you’re getting half of that it’s a lot of mushrooms. It’s enough for double-digit growth.”
The industry developed a major campaign to promote mushrooms as a healthier ingredient to combine with beef. “The Mushroom Council is working with retailers to promote and pilot ‘The Blend,’ which is the culinary technique of blending fresh, chopped mushrooms with ground meat to make dishes like hamburgers healthier,” says Kathleen Preis, marketing manager at the Redwood Shores, CA-based Mushroom Council. “Retailers such as Redners, Reasors, C&S Wholesale Grocers and more sampled ‘The Blend’ burger in order to provide a healthier burger option for their customers.”
A younger generation of consumers is making organic mushrooms a significantly growing category. “Driven by Millennials, the organic mushroom category has grown by 15 percent,” says Mike O’Brien, vice president of sales and marketing at Watsonville, CA-based Monterey Mushrooms. “We increased our organic production to service our customers at all farms, and with our expert category management capabilities, we helped our customers grow category sales by adding organics to the mix.” But the single most important growth area is the many brown varieties establishing rank in the produce department alongside the familiar white button mushroom.
“The mushroom consumer is becoming more sophisticated and is moving from the traditional white mushrooms to brown mushrooms, and exotics such as Oyster and Shiitake,” says Monterey Mushroom’s O’Brien. “Total mushroom category dollar sales growth was driven by brown mushrooms. The conversion from white button mushrooms to brown mushrooms continues.”
Brown is Beautiful
Suppliers report increasing demand for brown mushrooms, especially the Portobellos. “We are continuing to see strong growth in the brown category,” says Peter Wilder, marketing director at To-Jo Mushrooms, Avondale, PA. “We worked closely with our retailers on holiday promotional programs to capitalize on the increase in demand, and our growing division has done a great job preparing for this busy time in our industry.”
This large versatile mushroom adds a different touch to many dishes, and it can even play the leading role in burgers.
“If you love mushroom pizzas, a Portobello makes your pizza even better,” says O’Brien. “Also the Baby Bella continues to grow and in some areas outsells white mushrooms. Portobellos are great mushrooms to substitute for meat. They have a dark-brown color and a very rich flavor. You can even grill them whole as a ‘burger.’ They’re also good chopped into fillings, sauces, and casseroles.”
They are particularly well suited among mushrooms to play a major role in the center of the plate. “Portobello mushrooms have steadily increased in popularity with consumers, year after year,” says Jim Cline, vice president of sales southwest region for Giorgio Foods, Blandon, PA. “The full, rich flavor of Portobellos makes them ideal for center-of-the-plate dishes. Previously, Ports were seasonal, but now they are a popular year-round item, especially during the Thanksgiving and New Years holidays.” This large variety with the hefty texture, though nowhere near the traditional white button in volume, has a double-digit share of the mushroom category and is still growing.
“Portobellos now account for 11 percent of total mushroom sales at retail,” says Preis from the Mushroom Council. “Portobellos continue to rise in popularity due to the consumer trend toward meatless and flexitarian diets. The meaty texture and flavor of Portobellos are an excellent substitute for customers looking for a plant based, satisfying meal. As these trends toward health continue Portobellos and all mushrooms will continue to grow in popularity.”
Some suppliers consider Portobellos almost too mainstream, and are already looking to offer the next big thing. “Ports are old news, they are very popular and established,” says Meg Hill, director of sales and marketing at Gourmet Mushrooms, Sebastopol, CA. “Other specialty varieties have gained traction. Clamshells, Maitake, Nameko, Nebrodini, Trumpets. The specialty mushroom category growth was 21 percent last year, in contrast to Ports and Buttons, which grew in the low single digits.”
These exotic mushrooms are even appealing to customers who have to learn how to use them. “Variety that gives choice to shoppers, signage, shelf talkers and sales is always a good thing,” says Hill. “Customers may not necessarily know how to cook a specific mushroom but they can always do research online.”
These little-known mushrooms, alongside the familiar Buttons, can add entirely new flair to the produce section. “Diversity in variety can absolutely create an engaging display to draw customers to the selection,” says Preis. “When merchandising many different varieties, education or signage on the flavors and cooking techniques can help promote purchase. It is also helpful to sample the different varieties for customers to experience the different flavors.”
The largest market is still, however, the white and brown button mushrooms that consumers already know.
“I supply white and brown, and demand is very high,” says Richmond from Champ’s. “It is still getting higher. Depending on the retailer, it is approaching double digits. The exotics are too expensive to compete on a volume basis.” Variety adds excitement, but sometimes simple displays of a single mushroom variety alongside complementary items may be an effective merchandising approach.
“A single mushroom display can have impact if it is displayed with a product that can be easily marketed together,” says Cline of Giorgio Foods. “For example: during the grilling season, featuring Portobello caps in a display with grilling vegetables is typically successful as each item complements the other. It also helps encourage consumers to try new pairings or to get more creative with their recipes.”
It may be worth the time to think through the store demographics before making decisions about which mushrooms to display. “There is not a one-size-fits-all formula for displays,” says Cline. “We found there are several effective ways that you can set up a good, informative display that’s beneficial for both consumers and the store. Often a single-mushroom display can be every bit as impactful as a display that features multiple mushroom varieties.”
How Many Ways Can You Say Healthy?
Mushrooms are healthy. That simple fact is the foundation of most promotional efforts.
“Everyone is pushing the healthy angle, especially the Mushroom Council,” says Hill. “Swapability and blendability have taken off. Mushrooms are some of the best foods you can eat.”
Industry groups are waging a major effort to spread the word about the ability to combine mushrooms with animal protein and create a dish that is delicious and better for you than straight meat.
“‘The Blend’ continues to be an opportunity for retailers to promote an easy, better-for-you option to their customers,” says Preis of the Mushroom Council. “‘The Blend’ has grown in popularity with top chefs, chains and the media. Retailers interested in testing The Blend should reach out to the Mushroom Council for R&D and marketing support.”
Instructions for using mushrooms in this potentially very important way are quite simple.
“Chop your favorite mushroom variety to match the consistency of the ground meat in the recipe,” the Mushroom Council advises on its website. “Cook and season mushrooms the same way you would meat; and combine the cooked meat and mushrooms and use the mix to complete your recipe.”
Many cross-promotional opportunities grow out of this popular new use for mushrooms.
“One area that lends itself well to cross-promotion is the process of blending meat with mushrooms,” says Wilder from To-Jo Mushrooms. “‘The Blend’ allows a retailer to provide the consumer with a better tasting, more flavorful, lower-calorie burger at a reduced cost as part of its prepared food or deli programs.”
The leading industry agency is also trying to help retailers inform customers about other ways they can incorporate mushrooms into their diets and about the nutritional value.
“The Mushroom Council continues to work heavily with supermarket registered dietitians to promote the many health benefits of mushrooms,” says Preis. “Supermarket research departments are rising in popularity as a go-to for many consumers looking for health and cooking tips on a daily basis at their local stores. Customers are consistently seeking healthier options that are easy to prepare and taste great.”
Although they are grown indoors, the light used to grow mushrooms make them unusually rich in the sunshine vitamin. “One of the larger marketing initiatives for Monterey Mushrooms has been promoting the health benefits within the category, highlighting one in particular — vitamin D,” says O’Brien. “They are the only produce item with natural vitamin D, which is important not only for bones, but essential for healthy immune systems.”
This nutrient is of particular importance for consumers who are concerned about bone health. “Vitamin D is just as important for bone health as calcium,” says O’Brien. “If you’re running low, the calcium you get from food won’t get absorbed properly, leading to thin and brittle bones. The main source of vitamin D is exposure to sunlight. When we’re exposed to the sun’s UV rays, our bodies produce vitamin D; mushrooms do the same. Monterey’s 100 percent Vitamin D mushrooms provide all the required input for Vitamin D in only one 3-ounce serving.”
Many consumers are unfamiliar with the nutritional benefits of mushrooms, and it may be worth the effort for retailers to partner with suppliers to find effective ways of spreading the news.
“Educating customers on the versatility and nutritional benefits of mushrooms is an integral part of the ongoing support we provide to our customers,” says Wilder of To-Jo Mushrooms. “We are always looking to collaborate with our partners through ‘meet-the-grower’ events, and mushroom cooking demonstrations that can provide lift in the category while informing the consumer.”
The go-to resource for educational materials is the Mushroom Council, and its Internet presence. “The Mushroom Council is providing the resources supermarket research departments need to assist in communicating the ease of incorporating mushrooms into weekly meal plans,” says Preis. “The Mushroom Council has created a website with an entire section dedicated to providing supermarket RD resources and a ‘Blend’ demo toolkit.”
There are also efforts by major retailers to bring in experts to help explain the health benefits of mushrooms to staff and customers.
“We are seeing many in-house nutritionists becoming involved with the marketing and education to consumers related to the health and weight control benefits of mushrooms,” says Cline of Giorgio Foods. “We are very excited to see households with children of all ages becoming regular mushroom users. So now, not only are adults making healthier food choices, but they are setting a great example for their children to include mushrooms in their diet.”
Keep It Fresh
Mushrooms are highly perishable, which means it takes special effort to keep them fresh. One way to achieve freshness is to source the product from fairly close to the store or distribution center.
“Mushrooms are grown indoors, throughout the country 365 days a year, so they are fresh, seasonal and local to customers year-round,” says Preis of the Mushroom Council. “This is a huge advantage for merchandisers to promote — especially in winter months when there is not as much local, seasonal produce available.”
One major supplier has facilities scattered around the country, so the company can always ship product from pretty close to the market.
“Locally grown mushrooms have a marketing advantage,” says O’Brien from Monterey Mushrooms. “We are fortunate to have nine farms in the U.S. located across the country. This gives our customers the opportunity to advertise local mushrooms to the consumer. We have farms in Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Illinois, and California.”
Some suppliers, however, do not believe there is a need to offer mushrooms sourced locally. “We do not see a big advantage of the local-grown programs for fresh mushrooms,” says Cline. “Local-grown programs are most beneficial for ‘field crops’ like corn, cucumbers, tomatoes and melons.”
Even mushrooms that are not local, however, must be maintained in a way that keeps them fresh. “Local is good,” says Hill of Gourmet Mushrooms. “It provides fresher product, but a good cold chain and careful handling diminishes the allure of ‘local.’”
An important aspect of mushroom displays is to keep the product in a place good for both cold-chain maintenance and merchandising.
“We recommend merchandising mushrooms in your very best refrigerated case next to the bag salad category,” says O’Brien.
“To minimize shrink and maximize sales, it’s important to know your consumer and offer the variety that matches the store demographics.”
Another aspect of maintaining freshness is moving the product quickly off the shelves.
“Use your history and current trends,” says O’Brien. “Stay in stock, because out of stocks lead to loss sales, disappointed customers, and can really play havoc with your scan data. Once that is determined it’s blocking and tackling: maintain the cold chain from farm to retail shelf and use proper ordering to turn product.” In calculating product turnover, it helps to remember ’tis the season when mushrooms move the fastest.
“Around the holidays mushroom demand is at its highest as consumers look to serve their favorite holiday dishes to their families,” says Wilder of To-Jo Mushrooms. “Retailers will tailor their displays during this time frame, promoting larger club packs during the holiday season like our 20-ounce sliced Baby Bellas and 24-ounce whole white mushrooms.”