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Move Over, Meat


Americans are eating less meat. Health-conscious consumers have moved beyond Meatless Mondays to embrace a new food culture that has more vegetables in the center of the plate.

Umami-rich mushrooms, which provide a flavorful and healthful alternative — or an addition to meat — are benefiting from this trend, which isn’t necessarily about eschewing beef altogether.

Chicago-based research firm Mintel reports that while only 7 percent of consumers identify themselves as vegetarian, 36 percent say that they use meat alternatives.

The Blend

Such is the brilliance behind The Blend program, from the San Jose, Calif-based Mushroom Council. The initiative encourages consumers to chop mushrooms to match the texture of ground meat — beef, pork, chicken and turkey — and use it in place of some of the meat in their favorite dishes, from tacos to meatballs to burgers.

The council notes that mixing chopped mushrooms in with ground beef can eliminate as much as half the fat and calories per serving.

Last year, the council partnered with the James Beard Foundation on its Better Burger Project to challenge chefs and restaurants across the nation to include mushroom-blended burgers on their menus.

“As more people try The Blend in restaurants and learn about it in the media, fresh mushroom consumption continues to increase,” notes the council’s Kathleen Preis, who has observed that many retail trends begin with foodservice. “The Blend opens up a new avenue for mushroom sales in addition to traditional mushroom sales.”

“People are really starting to get into the idea of ‘blendability,’” agrees Ed Wuensch, of Kitchen Pride Mushroom Farms Inc., in Gonzales, Texas. “With more and more people wanting to eat healthy, they’re looking for creative ways to make healthier versions of their favorite meals, without sacrificing taste.”

Wuensch further notes that social media is helping to introduce consumers to new foods and cultures like never before. “People are becoming more and more interested and open-minded when it comes to trying new, exotic foods,” he says.

Pete Wilder, marketing director for To-Jo Mushrooms Inc., in Avondale, Pa., also sees consumers becoming more experimental in the kitchen, and credits the success of The Blend at retail and foodservice with inspiring home cooks to eat more mushrooms and find more uses for them.

“People are looking at mushrooms not just as a side dish, but as a center-plate meal. They’re cooking with mushrooms more frequently, and they’re using them to add flavor to dishes they’re used to making,” asserts Wilder, who adds that Millennials in particular are driving this more veg-centric diet trend.

Supermarkets around the country, including Hy-Vee, Kroger and Weis Markets, are also helping to promote The Blend and share its recipes. For example, Sunbury, Pa.-based Weis featured Chicken Marsala Meatballs, made with 33 percent mushrooms, on the cover of its Healthy Bites consumer publication. The grocer also posted a video online that features one of its registered dietitians demonstrating how to prepare the meatballs.

The Mushroom Council plans to continue to pilot The Blend with grocery chains in 2016. It’s also working with registered dietitians to promote mushroom nutrition.

“We have seen the importance of supermarket registered dietitians in their communities,” says Preis. “They provide nutrition information, recipes and cooking instructions for consumers looking to improve their health. By arming supermarket registered dietitians with mushroom and Blend recipes, demo kits, and handouts, we can continue to keep mushrooms and The Blend top of mind for consumers.”

The council encourages supermarkets interested in hosting a Blend pilot to visit the newly updated site, which also offers a link to the demo kit for registered dietitians.

Specialty Mushrooms

In terms of sales, white mushrooms are the front-runner, with 63 percent of the market, according to Preis, but brown and specialty mushrooms are gaining ground as consumers become increasingly willing to experiment.

Mike O’Brien, VP of sales and marketing for Watsonville, Calif.-based Monterey Mushrooms, attributes the growth in specialty mushrooms to their flavor profile and versatility.

“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,” he observes.

Within the market for brown mushrooms, which represents 32 percent of the category, crimini mushrooms are showing the most gains, with 5.9 percent sales growth, notes Preis. Criminis account for 22 percent of sales, while portabellas make up 10 percent of total mushrooms sales.

“Portabellas are great mushrooms to substitute for meat,” asserts O’Brien. “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.”

For the shopper who values flavor and convenience, Monterey Mushrooms has introduced a stuffed baby portabella package in three flavors: Spinach & Artichoke, Tomato Basil, and Poppin’ Peppers.

Keen to feed the nation’s growing appetite for specialty mushrooms, To-Jo Mushrooms last year introduced a foraged fresh mushroom program for upscale retailers and foodservice on an order basis. Under the program, To-Jo has created a seasonal calendar of foraged mushrooms to keep its customers informed as to availabilty. Wilder finds that demand is high for these limited-availability items.

“We’re still seeing continued growth in retail for specialty mushrooms,” he observes. “I think the trend is being driven by younger consumers who are more adventurous cooks and are looking for more flavor and quality.”

Merchandising Variety

“Mushrooms are one of the most perishable categories in the produce department,” points out O’Brien. “To minimize shrink and maximize sales, it’s important to know your consumer and offer the variety that matches the store demographics.”

Monterey Mushrooms is currently finding success with larger packages, brown mushrooms, exotics and organics. “Larger packages increase consumption and sales,” says O’Brien.

Once product assortment is dialed in, cold-chain management, product rotation, impactful displays and signage each play an important role.

“We encourage supermarkets to create a large, eye-catching display of fresh mushrooms with different varieties, sizes and value-adds,” suggests Preis. “We also encourage cross-merchandising mushrooms in a second location near the meat case, to encourage blending.”

The Mushroom Council further recommends signage that briefly explains the flavors and cooking techniques of different mushroom varieties.

“As more people try The Blend in restaurants and learn about it in the media, fresh mushroom consumption continues to increase.”
–Kathleen Preis, The Mushroom Council

“People are looking at mushrooms not just as a side dish, but as a center-plate meal.”
–Pete Wilder, To-Jo Mushrooms Inc.

“Mushrooms are one of the most perishable categories in the produce department.”
–Mike O’Brien, Monterey Mushrooms

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