The mushroom industry hit the proverbial nail on the head when the Mushroom Council launched its "Swap It or Top It" campaign with a recipe contest in June 2013. Since then, related terms like "blendability" had been attached to the movement resulting in a major boon — and expected strong growth — for mushroom producers across the country.
"We received 119 original mushroom recipe submissions for our 2013 contest," said Bart Minor, president of the Mushroom Council."This summer's recipe contest will encourage consumers to try blendability through participation in the online contest, increase consumer awareness about blendability cooking and health benefits and encourage retailers to display 'Swap It or Top It' contest collateral by participating in their own retailer display contest."
Minor explained that consumers are more focused than ever on global sustainability, calorie reduction, consuming nutrient-dense foods and exploring the world through cuisine.
"Mushrooms are nutrient-dense, low-calorie, low-fat and, like all fruits and vegetables, they are naturally gluten-free," he said. "Their versatility and texture allow mushrooms to complement virtually every cuisine, making them a chef favorite and a pantry staple."
"Blendability is leading the way as the momentum continues," said Peter Wilder, marketing director for To-Jo Mushrooms in in Avondale, PA. "Consumers looking for healthy alternatives more than ever and mushrooms really tap into that message.
"The outreach and awareness being generated by all the grower-shippers and the Mushroom Council across social media platforms and at various food shows is taking hold across all commercial and non-commercial foodservice segments," he added.
Wilder also noted that additional education is needed to bring awareness of the overall concept to the consumer so it can be adopted into menu planning and prepared food applications at the retail level.
To-Jo's customers span all categories, and it has grabbed hold of the blendability by working with a number of protein manufacturers on blended product formulations for some of their national chain accounts. It has launched some blended products and is working another new item planned for launch later this year or early 2015.
"We are also working on new items for our retail customers that we will launch this fall," he added. "The item will showcase the versatility of mushrooms and will offer a convenient alternative to sliced mushrooms for busy consumers."
Giorgio Fresh, a leading mushroom producer headquartered in Blandon, PA, concurs that the Mushroom Council's efforts to promote mushrooms are having a positive effect on consumer education and on demand.
Bill Litvin, vice president of sales and national account manager, said that Giorgio's efforts to promote mushrooms with individual customers are also reaping rewards for many accounts.
"Health and nutrition, and the trend to blend, are all helping to keep the sales of mushrooms strong and growing," said Litvin. "We have worked with meat processors on blends of meats and mushrooms."
Regarding mushroom varieties in high demand, Litvin said that exotics are showing greatest growth from a smaller base. Browns are showing the second greatest growth, and the white category is more mature. While whites are showing growth for Giorgio Fresh, it's by a lower percentage than the growth rate of the others. Although the company also offers wild mushrooms, the growth is weaker than in other categories.
Everyone agrees that as consumers continue to look for healthier alternatives to their diets, mushrooms fit perfectly with the criteria. Besides being low in calories they offer numerous health and nutritional benefits.
"Mushrooms are extremely versatile and can be used and substituted in several applications of cooking," said Bob Besix, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Country Fresh Mushroom Co. headquartered in Toughkenamon, PA. "The industry must continue its effort to educate the customer on the many uses and benefits of fresh mushrooms, and the Mushroom Council's 'Swapabilty' campaign is good example of this. It teaches consumers how to blend mushrooms in with meats such as a hamburger to reduce the calories and fat content. This not only makes the hamburger a healthier alternative but it also adds flavor."
Besix added that research and development are ongoing at Country Fresh because the company continuously works with its customer base to develop new products and uses for mushrooms.
Kevin Donovan, national sales manager for Phillips Mushroom Farms in Kennett Square, PA, said that he senses a build up to something large due to the "Swap-It or Top-It" campaign, and that companies are gearing up for what they believe is yet to come. But he doesn't think the industry is feeling the major impact quite yet.
"These major trends take some time to build momentum, and there's still a lot of consumer education necessary for mainstream Americans to realize the many ways that blending mushrooms with other proteins are more nutritional, lower in calories and have a lesser impact on food budgets," said Donovan. "But I believe it will have a large impact in time. With the U.S. Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines calling for more fruits and vegetables, and the push in school menus, blending or topping with mushrooms will call for a major demand increase for mushroom producers.
Phillips Mushroom produces a full line of mushrooms and in a wide variety of packaging. Donovan noted that while the company has no plans to develop a blendable product, such as meatballs or hamburgers, he does expect that the demand on the company's product will come from processors who see value in creating blended products.
"While much can be said about mushrooms, their growing popularity really comes down to three things; versatility, nutrition, and most important, flavor," noted Joe Caldwell vice president of Monterey Mushrooms Inc. headquartered in Watsonville, CA. "If mushrooms did not truly enhance the flavor of dishes they were cooked in, shoppers would find other alternatives for their food dollars."
Caldwell pointed out that the heightened popularity of cooking shows has encouraged exploration of food ingredients.
"The more mushrooms are compared to other foods, the more consumers find out what a great bargain they are and a wonderful surprise in their relative cost, value, versatility and nutrition," he added. "And, oh yeah, did I mention they enhance flavor?"
Caldwell also pointed out that exotic mushrooms continue to experience double-digit growth every year and now account for almost 2 percent of total sales.
"Organic mushrooms are growing faster than any other category," he said. "Portabellas are starting to experience a near rebirth in growth as that category had been flat for several years."
Fletcher Street, director of sales and marketing for Ostrom Mushroom Farms in Olympia, WA, said she believes that mushroom mania is really just beginning as people discover the versatility, nutrition and the lifestyle applications whether it is vegetarian, flexitarian, vegan, low-carb or low-fat or just gourmet cooking.
"This discovery has been a lot of years in the making by the Mushroom Council getting the word out to the consumer, and the consumer having it reinforced at the restaurant level," she pointed out. "I think that continued work with both foodservice and direct consumer interaction from the council, supported regionally by local farms may help to get blended mushroom-meat products into schools. It this happens, we will have a whole new generation growing up liking mushrooms."
The Mushroom Council's 2014 "Swap It or Top It" retail contest will take place from June 1 to June 30.
"Participating stores have received their point-of-sale kits, and produce departments will build engaging mushroom displays within the blendability and grilling theme to educate consumers' on the technique and the recipe contest," said Minor. "More than $10,000 in prizes will be awarded to 21 winning produce departments from stores across the country."