Mushroom Mania


A new campaign suggests that this superfood is what's for supper.

Rich in the antioxidant selenium, as well as such other nutrients as riboflavin, potassium, niacin and vitamin D, mushrooms are a flavorful superfood that eats like meat.

From crimini to portabellas, these fungi are such a satisfying alternative to animal-based proteins that a growing number of health-conscious consumers are no longer asking, "Where's the beef?"

The concept of substituting mushrooms for meatier fare is the thrust of a new high-visibility "Swapability" campaign launched in March by the Mushroom Council, which generated a bevy of national coverage in a variety of major media outlets.

"Swapability came about to promote the health and nutritional benefits of mushrooms," explains Jill Netzel, spokeswoman for the San Jose, Calif.-based council. "It's a three-step process of substituting a portion of meat with mushrooms to put an extra serving of veggies on the plate by enhancing, extending or replacing the meat." A recipe for turkey burgers for example, calls for substituting half of the meat with minced, sautéed mushrooms.

Super Marketing

Mushrooms have been linked to cancer protection, the decreased likelihood of tumor growth and a host of other health benefits. These fabulous fungi are also the produce aisle's richest source of selenium — an antioxidant that protects cells from damage and strengthens the immune system. They're also a source of the antioxidant L-ergothioneine, another protector against cell damage associated with a variety of illnesses, including heart disease and diabetes.

Inspired by the good news about the nutritional benefits of mushrooms, Watsonville, Calif.-based Monterey Mushrooms Inc. recently redesigned its packaging to highlight the positive health message.

"The mushroom category is definitely benefiting from the nutrition and superfood attention they've received over the past few years," notes Joe Caldwell, VP of Monterey Mushrooms. "The conscious effort by the entire industry to emphasize the nutritional aspects of what mushrooms do have — antioxidants, B vitamins, vitamin D — instead of what they don't have — fat, sodium, calories, carbs — has really led to an awakening in the general population. As more research is published about the flavor enhancement, in addition to the health enhancement of adding mushrooms to meals, we expect even more growth in the future."

Monterey Mushrooms's new sustainable packaging features mushroom usage ideas, nutrition information, recipes, the superfood health benefits and the product's high vitamin D content. Caldwell, who's confident the updated packaging will lead to greater success for the brand, explains, "Fresh mushroom sales have increased steadily, one of the only commodities to show healthy growth in volume and dollars throughout the economic downturn."

"Obviously, mushrooms are not a staple — yet — but their unique combination of flavor, health and flexibility for use in any meal is really gaining popularity among not only retail shoppers, but foodservice operators as well," Caldwell continues. "Most of the growth is coming from the brown sector. Specialty mushrooms are also showing growth, including shiitake, oyster, maitake and also organics."

Growth in Specialty

"Mushrooms as a superfood — I love it!" exclaims Joe Salvo, president of Ponderosa Mushrooms in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. "It's so exciting to see mainstream press mentioning the health benefits of mushrooms, because that's what it takes to raise awareness and get people talking about them."

Ponderosa, which focuses on wild and specialty mushrooms, is experiencing continued sales growth. "We're seeing more mainstream chain restaurants using portabella and shiitake mushrooms," says Salvo, whose company offers a pre-cut Ponderosa Chef's Mix — a blend of six to eight cultivated and wild mushrooms depending on seasonal availability. The mix has become one of Ponderosa's fastest-growing products.

But Salvo admits that progress has been slow and steady. "It's a bit of a challenge to get mainstream retailers to list specialty mushrooms that are four times the cost of white buttons, but those who do have had great success," he asserts. Ponderosa has placement in two large Canadian chains with its Chef's Mix and has recently started working with U.S. retailers on both coasts.

One of the keys to sales success with specialty mushrooms is consistency, asserts Salvo. "People will buy and use specialty mushrooms if they can get them on a regular basis," he urges. "The consumer has to get used to seeing the product in the store and have the confidence that when they go down to their local supermarket on a Thursday night, that the product will be there."

Stock rotation and staff training are equally important, continues Salvo. "I would hate for someone to buy a package of shimeji mushrooms are squishy. They would think that's the way they're supposed to be and never buy them again."

Merchandising Mushrooms

What are some of the best ways to increase sales of mushrooms? The Mushroom Council's consumer research finds that mushroom consumption is on the rise during breakfast and lunch. Promoting recipes for both meals in store ads is an effective way to increase mushroom sales, says Netzel, who also emphasizes the importance of cross-promotions.

Regular promotion is also critical, notes Caldwell. "Most retailers should promote mushrooms every two to three weeks, rotating between white, brown and specialty varieties to encourage consumer trial," he says. "In our category reviews, the No. 1 reason retailers experience flat sales is due to lack of promotional activity."

Finally, to give customers a taste of your flavorful mushroom assortment while giving them food for thought about home preparation, Salvo recommends shrinking still tasty but slightly imperfect mushrooms to the deli or prepared food department. "Consumers often don't realize how easy it is to prepare mushrooms," he says. "Just grilled on the barbecue with a little salt and olive oil, they're delicious. Let the mushrooms speak for themselves."

Facebook Fungi

The Mushroom Council is making social media a priority by focusing on the consumer desire to share photos and recipes. In addition to Facebook and Twitter, the organization has been among the first commodity groups to create a presence on Pinterest. According to the San Jose, Calif.-based council's spokeswoman, Jill Netzel, the recently launched page already has hundreds of followers.

"The mushroom category is definitely benefiting from the nutrition and superfood attention they've received over the past few years."

—Joe Caldwell, Monterey Mushrooms Inc.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds