I recently went down a mushroom rabbit-hole. And not the kind you may be imagining.
It all started with RangeMe’s Q2 Retail Roundup Report, in which I learned that the keyword “mushroom” was trending on RangeMe among food, beverage, health and beauty care retail buyers in the United States. After digging deeper into the data, I found that buyers were searching for every variety of these formidable fungi from fresh mushrooms to supplements, beverages, jerky, and even coffee.
Armed with these insights, I took to the 2022 Plant Based World Expo floor at New York’s Javits Center to see what retailers, food service operators and brands had to say about mushrooms. I was not disappointed. Mushrooms are indeed becoming a favorite among buyers and are no longer just a staple in the produce section. They can now be foraged throughout the store in multiple categories. According to NielsenIQ Retail Measurement Services, NielsenIQ Product Insight, powered by Label Insight, there has been significant growth among some up and coming mushroom ingredients in the past three years, particularly products containing Reishi (up 72.3%), Lions Mane (up 534.5%) and chaga (up 238.4%). In total, sales of mushrooms and products containing mushrooms are up 21.8% since 2019.
Several mushroom-based products were finalists in the various categories of the World Plant-Based Awards, which were announced during a special ceremony at this year’s Plant Based World Expo. The winner of the Best Meat Alternative was, you guessed it, a mushroom brand: The Mushroom Meat Co., which won for its Pulled Pork product.
Why are mushrooms garnering so much interest these days? Based on my conversations with buyers and brands on the show floor and from conversations with RangeMe buyers, I learned that there are three major factors contributing to the popularity of mushrooms: their availability, versatility and wellness benefits.
Rooted in the pandemic
This recent frenzy for fungi goes back to the beginning of the pandemic, when consumers were facing a combination of boredom in the kitchen and fear of catching the virus. As everyone was stuck at home quarantining, they spent a lot of time cooking their own meals and began experimenting with new ingredients,like mushrooms. At the same time, mushrooms were being touted in popular media for their immunity-boosting properties.
“The pandemic gave people a lot of opportunity to try new things in the kitchen,” says John Rosenblum, Category Manager – Grocery, Dairy & Frozen for RangeMe user Citarella, a New York City-based distributor and gourmet foods retailer with stores in Manhattan, Long Island and Connecticut. “During that time, many celebrity chefs continued their shows, and you saw a lot of creativity happening because of it. From a gourmet perspective, foraged items such as mushrooms are kind of a treasure hunt to find, and they opened up consumers to a lot of new cooking opportunities.”
Citarella is well-known for its proteins, particularly its dry-aged beef, air-chilled chicken, lamb and fish – which is brought into the stores often hours after it’s caught off the shores of Long Island. Rosenbloom likes to refer to his job as “supporting the proteins” by keeping tabs on new food trends and finding products that match up well with them. When it comes to mushrooms, he says, their availability and versatility make them a perfect compliment to many of the retailer’s proteins.
A great meat alternative
Increasingly, mushrooms are even becoming a replacement for meat, particularly on college campuses where interest in plant-based meat alternatives is growing rapidly among students, many of whom are requesting that more items with mushrooms be added to their menus. (ECRM’s Plant-Based Food & Beverage Session, held earlier this month, continues to grow in popularity each year as this trend becomes increasingly popular).
“Mushrooms are incredibly nutritious and just packed with flavor,” says Rose Forrest, Sustainability Coordinator for Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island for Sodexo, and a regular ECRM session participant that provides food service and facilities management services. “It’s something the students are embracing at the campuses we serve.”
Forrest says that we are well beyond the days of the plain old foodservice mushrooms on which many of us grew up, and since there are so many amazing varieties and flavors out there to choose from, they make for an abundance of menu options. “They are packed with flavor, impact, and umami, and a good substitute for meat. It’s great as jerky, on pizzas, sandwiches, and pretty much on any of those platforms students are used to. It goes on your grill station like a portobello mushroom burger, and you can put it on a risotto, which we actually have on the line here at some of our accounts. Mushrooms are just so versatile.”
Indeed, mushrooms have become so popular on campus that Sodexo has teamed up with Fat Moon Farms to ensure that there are always enough on hand at the 40+ campuses served by her division. For the accounts in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Sodexo has a Harvest Month Program, in which each account submits the volume they expect to go through on a weekly basis for specific items so the farm knows how much to grow of each variety. Mushrooms can be harvested in as little as a few weeks, which is why they have such high availability, and this enables the campuses to plan according to what their needs are. Some accounts may go through up to five cases per week of mushrooms.
Packed with nutrition
Another reason for the popularity of mushrooms are the tremendous wellness benefits they provide. Mushrooms are rich in vitamin D and vitamin B, and in addition to the immunity benefits noted above, they help decrease the risk of cancer and stimulate a healthier gut. “There are a lot of health benefits,” says Wilson Pichardo, Category Manager/Buyer – Grocery, Dairy & Frozen at Citarella. “They are great for heart health, for boosting immunity, and are also good for blood pressure. They are also high in fiber and protein.”
Because of this, Pichardo has been looking to add more mushroom-based products into the retailer’s stores including supplements, mushroom snacks, jerky and beverages. At the Plant Based World Expo, suppliers of mushroom products made Citarella’s list of top brands with which to follow up.
Food retailers aren’t the only ones tapping into the power of mushrooms. Nutrition and wellness specialty retailers are offering a variety of supplements with mushrooms as a key ingredient to appeal to consumers looking for more natural formulations. “People are leaning towards more natural based supplements with multiple benefits, which is one of the reasons mushrooms are trending,” says Ally Rapp, Assistant Merchant – Weight Management, Herbs & Greens, and Health & Beauty for GNC, another RangeMe member. “Since COVID, we’ve seen more consumers looking for a wellness routine to help with immunity and their overall wellbeing.”
While there were an abundance of mushroom brands at the Plant Based World Expo, here are three that really stood out with me:
Fable, a finalist for the Plant-Based Meat Alternative award, was my go-to spot throughout the show whenever I needed a bite. Its products are made from shiitake mushrooms whose dense, fleshy fibers and flavors are naturally meat-like and are free from GMOs, preservatives, and artificial ingredients. I had it plain, on sliders, and on tacos, and I would swear I was eating a steak taco if I didn’t know any better.
I had the good fortune to have the MyForest Foods booth right next to the RangeMe booth at the Plant Based World Expo. The brand – which was also a finalist for the Plant-Based Meat Alternative award – uses mycelium to grow nutrient-rich fibers that replicate the textures and mouthfeel of meat, and the team was showcasing its MyBacon product at the event. When they cooked it up on the grill, the smell was amazing. Its texture was surprisingly similar to bacon, and it had a rich umami flavor that was delicious. I ate it on its own, but I imagine it would also be great on a sandwich.
Popadelics was a finalist for the Best Plant-Based Snack for its Crunchy Mushroom Chips, which are shiitake mushrooms reimagined as a modern superfood snack. Its chips are air-fried and come in three flavors: trippin’ truffle parm, twisted thai chili, and my favorite, rad rosemary & salt. I kept going back to their booth for more!
With all of this innovation happening, it will be interesting to see how the mushroom segment continues to evolve, and just where brands, retailers, and consumers will take it. “There is going to be a lot of versatility within different types of products,” says Citarella’s Pichardo. “It’s not just going to be your alternative bacon or alternative tacos. You’re going to see ground meat and yogurt infused with reishi or shiitake, and other innovations. There’s going to be a lot more mushroom-based foods and supplements in a variety of alternate forms.”
One thing’s for sure. While mushrooms might flourish in the shade, the light shone on them by retailers and food service operators will certainly spur on additional growth!
Buyers on RangeMe – interested in participating in this fungi frenzi? Browse thousands of mushroom products here.