Although they may be cute as a button, there's more to mushrooms than just the generic white variety. More types are reaching natural foods stores, and they're growing on consumers. And there are more packaging options than ever.
"The white button mushroom is still by far the most popular mushroom in America, and still accounts for about 80 percent of total sales in the U.S.," says Joe Caldwell, vice president at Monterey Mushrooms and co-chairman of the Marketing Advisory Committee for the Mushroom Council, a mushroom industry advocacy group. "But we've seen really good growth for the past 15 years for the brown mushroom category, including the portabellas, baby portabellas and criminis, which now account for [about] 17 percent of all mushroom sales. They've really caught on, and we expect that category to grow 20 percent," within the next two years, Caldwell says.
The more exotic mushroom varieties represent the other 3 percent of sales, according to Caldwell. "In that group, the shiitake is the most popular. But there are several others that are growing in popularity, including the maitake, the king trumpet, the oyster and the beech—we've seen a lot of growth for those varieties."
The good news for naturals retailers is that people who buy mushrooms tend to be their key demographic—affluent and well-educated—according to an ACNielsen report for the mushroom industry.
And even seasonal varieties are available year round, thanks to dried mushrooms, says Michael Monroe, owner of FungusAmongUs of Snohomish, Wash., which sells primarily dried wild mushrooms, including morels, porcinis, wood ears, lobster mushrooms, truffles and black trumpets. "Most of our mushrooms are wildcrafted," Monroe says, describing the process of picking seasonal species where they grow, which are typically woody, moist areas.
A multitude of mushrooms
With so many varieties available, how are consumers to differentiate which mushroom to use for what dish? That question is actually a great opportunity for natural foods retailers to educate consumers and generate sales for new varieties of mushrooms. "White button mushrooms are the most familiar to consumers, but they don't have a very strong flavor," says Caldwell. "The brown mushrooms have a much deeper, richer flavor, with a brown [one] like the portabella having a firmer texture. Shiitakes have both a nuttier, stronger flavor and texture, and maitakes and beech mushrooms have a very nutty, woodsy flavor."
Not only are mushrooms an important element in many recipes, but they also have a variety of nutritional advantages. "Mushrooms are known for what they don't have—no fat, no sodium, low in calories—they fit into virtually every diet plan, including low-carb diets and diets for diabetics," Caldwell says. "But it's equally important to talk about what they do have nutritionally, which is extensive—they have protein, they're an excellent source of B vitamins, they're high in selenium and contain antioxidants."
"A lot of the nutritional benefits you hear a lot about these days are with the reishi mushrooms, which help prevent cancer, inhibit tumor growth, are antiviral and are said to help with things like mood swings and respiratory problems," says Monroe. "Shiitake mushrooms help cholesterol, blood pressure, and add protein to the diet. One of my favorites, because it's delicious, too, is the maitake—it's a really great mushroom for building up the immune system, blocking tumors, boosting metabolism and increasing fat utilization."
According to a report done for the Mushroom Council by John Stanton, Ph.D., from the department of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, there are still several obstacles preventing consumers from embracing mushrooms. The report shows that customers want more convenience when using mushrooms and also have basic questions about how to cook with or store mushrooms.
Retailers can display tips from www.mushroomcouncil.org. For example, the list instructs consumers to select mushrooms without visible moisture on the outside or in the pack, and that those with open veils (the thin membrane under the cap) have more intense flavor. It also advises consumers to store bulk mushrooms in a paper bag.
Monterey Mushrooms' answer to the convenience issue has been to create a variety of prewashed and presliced all-natural mushroom packages. While such containers have been around for several years, Monterey's newest innovation is bagged, fresh, precleaned mushrooms, similar to the bagged lettuce varieties that have caught on so well with consumers. The product was introduced earlier this year. "It's taken three years to get it on the market," Caldwell says, explaining that the technical issues for bagging fresh mushrooms versus a product like lettuce were considerable. "Our bag offers a resealable feature, which is definitely an added convenience, since so many customers worry about mushroom storage and mushrooms lasting. In our testing, consumers actually preferred a bigger bag, which was surprising to us because since it's resealable they think of it as a multi-use product." Monterey claims to be the first company to market this bagged innovation.
"One of the biggest reasons we like dried mushrooms is the convenience they offer," says Monroe. "You can buy a very small pack—say a 1/2- to 1-ounce pack—pick just a few pieces out, soak them, and they rehydrate very easily. Then you can even use the broth [they soaked in], and add it back into dishes like noodles or rice, which enhances the foods with a very rich flavor." Monroe says the dried mushrooms can be stored in a resealable plastic bag, and, if kept out of moisture, can last up to a year.
Allen Jones, category manager for produce at Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets, says that although packaged mushrooms may be the most popular option at conventional stores, at Wild Oats, bulk mushrooms sell the best. "Because they're more expensive mushrooms that we tend to sell bulk in the produce section, when they're loose our customers can choose exactly how much they want to purchase," Jones explains. "In general, our customers prefer no packaging."
Still, some packaged mushrooms sell well even if they don't dominate the category. "Organic, loose shiitakes are one of the best sellers for us, as are packaged, nonorganic shiitakes," Jones says. "Organic packaged criminis are also very popular; conventional bulk criminis are slightly less popular. And portabellas, morels and beech mushrooms also always do very well for us."
Jones says when promoting new varieties of mushrooms, interactive promotions are essential. "We have a chef program, where a chef will come in and prep a particular kind of mushroom and explain how to cook with them," Jones explains. "We get a huge sales increase for mushrooms in response to those demos. If people taste them cooked by a competent chef and have someone there to explain to them how to cook with them and to answer their questions, it's essential to the sale. With mushrooms, active demos like that will be much more effective than a bird-feeder demo."
Lynn Ginsburg is the author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin's Press, 2003).
Editor's note: September is national mushroom month.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 8/p. 28, 32