Touted as top trending food, 2021 is proving a great year for mushrooms.
Originally printed in the August 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Mushrooms are difficult to ignore. Shaped like umbrellas, the fruiting bodies of certain fungi have exploded in popularity and media attention.
Retailers including Whole Foods and Kroger predict mushrooms will be one of 2021’s top trending foods. Mushrooms are lauded for their high nutritional value, low carbohydrate level, high immunity-boosting properties, adaptability in many dishes and inclusion in popular eating plans such as Whole 30, Keto and Paleo.
The favorable publicity recognizes 2021 as the Year of the Mushroom.
“Year 2021 is the Year of the Mushroom because mushrooms are gentle on the planet, nutritious, and delicious,” says Sean Steller, director of business development for Phillips Mushroom Farms, Kennett Square, PA. “This year we have seen mushrooms become more popular across many markets: retail, restaurants and foodservice distributors are all using more mushrooms. At the same time, innovative products such as mushroom jerky, mushroom chips and new mushroom menu items continue to hit the market. The versatility of mushrooms is what really sets them apart from many other produce items.”
Over the past several years, media have touted mushrooms as a top food trend. Citing a growing recognition of mushrooms’ health and nutritional values along with year-long availability and culinary versatility, CNN declared mushrooms “the new grocery aisle celebrities.”
“This is a great thing for the mushroom to be in this light and get all this good press,” says Alan Kleinman, business development manager of Gourmet’s Finest, Avondale, PA, “You will get more consumption and more eaters. They’re featured everywhere. More mushrooms have been on more menus in the last two to three years than ever, whether for medicinal purposes or in recipes. With all the positive reviews they’re getting, it makes people curious to at least try them if they’ve never tried them, or to eat something in a restaurant they may not have eaten before.”
According to a December 2020 press release by Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., “2021 will be a breakout year for mushrooms. The versatile vegetable is rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and can easily elevate everyday recipes with its warm umami flavor. Consumers should expect to see mushrooms play a starring role in a variety of new products in 2021, including blended plant-based proteins, condiments, spices, seasonings and more.“
“Mushrooms are getting a lot of press and traction right now, and I believe that has a lot to do with their versatility,” observes Kevin Delaney, vice president of sales and marketing for To-Jo Mushrooms, Inc., Avondale, PA. “More consumers are putting mushrooms in their shopping carts than ever before. Not only are a growing number of consumers aware of the health benefits of mushrooms, but they are so easy to incorporate in your meals. They are quick to prepare, quick to cook, and naturally enhance the flavor of your dish.”
Mushrooms have become a growth category across the food, ingredient and nutraceutical supply chains, says Bruce Knobeloch, vice president of marketing and product development for Monterey Mushrooms, Inc., based in Watsonville, CA. Whether reviewing fresh mushroom retail sales data, restaurant usage and menu data or the utilization of mushrooms as ingredients in a broad array of food, supplement and nutraceutical categories, “it all tells the tale that represents the value of mushrooms to us as human beings,” he says.
“Mushroom-related nutrient research, menu development and product utilization globally have exploded in the last decade,” says Knobeloch. “The word is out, and the message is growing that mushrooms may be the original ‘Superfood’. We have finally figured it out!”
Key Retail Seller
Mushrooms sell well at Drust Markets, a two-store chain based in Wallingford, CT. “I put them in the Top 5 category,” says Don Drust, owner of the stores which are a part of ShopRite/ Wakefern Food Corp. “There will be more and more demand. Before, people were afraid to try them. People aren’t afraid of them anymore. Once customers find you have that variety, they will keep coming back to you.”
A mushroom shopper is a valued customer. “A mushroom consumer is the epitome of a great customer that you want to keep coming back to your store week after week,” states Brandon Bentley, category business manager-vegetables for Tops Markets, a 162-store chain based in Williamsville, NY, which operates stores in New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont. “They rarely, if ever, only buy a package of mushrooms and leave the store. They fill their baskets with products from around the store.”
The force is with mushrooms. “Mushroom momentum has been building for the past several years and we agree 2021 certainly feels like ‘The Year of the Mushroom’,” comments Bart Minor, president and chief executive officer of the Mushroom Council, based in Redwood City, CA. “Mushrooms meet the moment we are living in for many reasons. When you observe many of the culinary trends of the day, mushrooms consistently appear as a central ingredient for that trend.”
Marketers expect mushrooms to continue to gain popularity. “Although mushrooms have been a kitchen staple for years, people are cooking more and developing a deeper appreciation for their rich flavor, nutritional benefits, and versatility,” observes Greg Sagan, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Giorgio Fresh Co., Temple, PA.
“Mushrooms are seen as a gourmet item,” says Sagan. “Home chefs gravitate toward including mushrooms in their meals to elevate the meal occasion. Additionally, mushrooms are a nutritional powerhouse having Vitamin D, selenium, potassium and other immunity-boosting antioxidants. This, paired with the low environmental impact to grow mushrooms and rich umami flavor, has caused the popularity of mushrooms to surge.”
Mushrooms are big. “Mushrooms were already on trend as the most searched food on Google last year,” says Fred Recchiuti, general manager of Basciani Foods, Inc., Avondale, PA. “I think their savory umami flavor profile as well as their various nutraceutical properties were major drivers of this trend. Then, with COVID, everyone became extremely concerned about their immune system, and mushrooms play a major role in that arena.”
“With COVID pushing consumers to try different things at home due to meal fatigue, mushrooms have turned into an everyday addition to dinner entrees,” says Tops Markets’ Bentley. “Mushrooms are a way to add the same touch of elegance consumers are used to while eating out. Now that everyday home cooks are versed in these great veggies, variety in stores is imperative to keep them coming back for more.”
Specialty Varieties Soaring
When Drust entered the business, stores may have displayed mushrooms on two rows of mushrooms on the counter. Today, his stores merchandise mushrooms in eight-foot sections because of the multitude of varieties. “We have expanded the category and given the customer a lot of choice,” says Drust.
Prior to the pandemic, specialty mushrooms were growing at a steady rate. However, as consumers began cooking more and more at home, premium varieties such as oysters and shiitakes surged at the retail level, notes To-Jo’s Delaney. “We are expecting to see crimini outsell white mushrooms in the future,” he says. “In addition, we predict that soon shiitakes will move ahead of portabellas and become the third most consumed mushroom. These trends reflect consumers who are looking to get more creative and add flavor to their weekly meals.”
Phillips grows white, baby bella, portabella, shiitake, oyster, maitake, lion’s mane, and royal trumpet mushrooms. “Each variety has unique qualities that favor many different recipes,” says Steller. “Consumers are finding new mushrooms that they have never experienced before, and they are really enjoying the new flavors. We expect this trend to continue as consumers learn more about each mushroom variety.”
Mushrooms’ numerous health benefits help secure an optimistic future for the fungi. “More and more retailers have focused attention and allocated resources on communicating and promoting the overall health and nutrition of fresh mushrooms,” says Monterey Mushrooms’ Knobeloch. “Marketers are pushing the healthy angle to appeal to health-conscious consumers no matter what demographic. The COVID-19 era has taught us all that the choices we make regarding our general heath really matter and healthy fresh food is a huge component of our lifestyle.”
MUSHROOMS ARE ‘THE ANSWER’
Mushrooms possess strong environmental benefits. “Mushrooms are one of the most sustainably grown crops in the U.S.,” comments Phillips’ Steller. “Research indicates one pound of mushrooms requires only 1.8 gallons of water. That is remarkably low compared to many other food sources. Mushrooms are also one of the original vertical farming innovators, with incredibly high growing efficiency. One acre of land can produce over one million pounds of mushrooms annually.”
Sales can only keep expanding. “We believe mushroom sales and demand will continue to grow,” says Knobeloch. “Food companies across the globe are looking at ways to utilize mushrooms in their products.”
Mushroom marketers are optimistic about continued growth. “It is no stretch to believe that in the not too distant future, mushrooms will eventually become a staple for consumers, much the same way grocery shoppers habitually toss a bag of apples, a jar of peanut butter or a carton of eggs into their cart,” predicts Minor. “So, too, will they add mushrooms as a matter of course each week. In virtually every instance of consumer need/opportunity it seems that mushrooms are ‘The Answer’, and increasingly consumers are discovering just that.”
Tops Markets’ Bentley’s remains optimistic. “With restaurants opening back up and customers getting their fix of fine dining, will the trend continue?,” he asks. “In my opinion, it will. ‘Shrooms are here to stay, and we will remember 2021 as the year of the mushroom.”
Sales Figures Tell Growth Story
Retail sales have increased at a steady pace, outpacing most other produce items during pandemic shopping, says Bart Minor of the Mushroom Council. Foodservice was at record sales when the pandemic struck and have since rebounded stronger than expected. Food companies are incorporating mushrooms as functional ingredients. Plus, fashion and home decor designers consider mushroom art and even actual mushrooms as trendy. “It certainly seems over the past year, mushrooms’ trending status has elevated to a higher plane in the eyes of so many audiences,” quips Minor.
Sales figures verify the popularity of mushrooms. Since 2018, mushrooms have increased 21% in dollar sales and 6% in units, according to data from Chicago-based NielsenIQ. During 2020, the pandemic year, mushroom dollar sales increased 12% from 2019 to 2020 with unit sales up 9% that same period.
Now that pandemic shopping has settled, retail pounds and dollars are down vs. last year, as many expected. However, at least at this early stage, comparing full post-pandemic 4-week periods (ending in April and May) with pre-pandemic performance, mushrooms have picked up where they left off: sales are up more than 14% in dollars and more than 10% in pounds in 2021 vs. same period in 2019, according to the council.
Behind prepackaged salads, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, bell peppers and lettuce, but ahead of carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, squash, celery, asparagus, corn and cabbage, mushrooms are the 7th biggest selling vegetable, according to NielsenIQ. In unit sales, mushrooms are 11th, trailing tomatoes, potatoes, packaged salads, onions, bell peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, carrots, squash, broccoli and cabbage.
“Mushroom demand has been growing consistently in recent years at retail and foodservice,” observes Minor. “For retail, 2020 found mushrooms among the top three produce items in terms of year-over-year sales increase.” Combined domestic and imported shipments demonstrates a steady growth in fresh mushroom demand of 3% to 4% per year, a trend that has sustained for 10 years. “This growth was not impaired by COVID-19 market disruptions,” says Minor. “In fact, there has been a surge in consumption at home.”
To keep sales increasing, marketers must pay attention to demographics. “Millennials are larger than any other demographic group, so they are an important market segment,” says Giorgio Foods’ Sagan. “Mushrooms can truly be incorporated into every cuisine. Our website offers an array of recipes ranging from kid-friendly, elevated fine dining classics and ethnic-inspired recipes. Each market segment is important to the mushroom category.”