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Shifting the Umami Paradigm

Shifting the Umami Paradigm

Our industry sits at the center of health and wellness. It stands apart from pharmaceutical companies, fad diets, and gimmicky products like weight-loss teas. A what-you-see-is-what-you-get mentality runs through the heart of those in fresh produce.

I can’t stress enough the importance of transparency in a world where consumers rarely know—and trust—where their products came from. We have that home field advantage—we can bring them to fields, sit them down with farmers, walk them through a production line, and the list goes on! It’s no wonder that products in which shoppers see how they get to market are some of the most important figures in the fight for health.

Knowing that fruits and vegetables are at the epicenter of the health movement is one thing; seeing them in action is something else entirely. I’m prone to personifying even the smallest concepts, so I can’t help but imagine a data table’s satisfaction when presented with steady category growth.

For years now—in fact, for over five decades—Monterey Mushrooms has nurtured, developed, and tracked the climb of brown mushrooms—a climb that is becoming more of an acceleration with every passing day.

“The brown mushroom segment, which includes Baby Bellas, Crimini, and Portabella, has consistently led the mushroom category in unit share and dollar sales growth for the past 20 quarters,” Michael Stephan, Monterey Mushrooms’ Sales Director, explains to me. “Brown mushrooms represent over 40 percent of the dollar sales, with ‘Best in Class’ retailers seeing dollar sales over 50 percent of the total category.”

As Michael and I chat, he tells me brown mushrooms drive sales even with a smaller share of the shelf. It’s an impressive bit of merchandising maneuvering—as well as testimony to the importance of educating shoppers—that even with fewer retail-facing products, brown mushrooms can still dominate consumer consciousness and make it to the basket.

Admittedly, I’m a late convert to the mushroom allure—although their taste and health aspects have made me more prone to adding them to my cart than before. Overcoming product hesitancy is easy for brown mushrooms, especially with the way Michael talks about them.

“Flavor, taste, and mouthfeel all set these mushrooms apart from others. In general, brown mushrooms are a more engaging mushroom that has a higher umami taste,” he shares, before making a comparison that gives me a momentary pause. “Let’s compare the growth of brown mushrooms to, say, apples and beer. Baby Bellas are to white mushrooms as the Honeycrisp is to Red Delicious, and Portabellas are to white mushrooms as craft beer is to Budweiser®.”

“The brown mushroom segment, which includes Baby Bellas, Crimini, and Portabella, has consistently led the mushroom category in unit share and dollar sales growth for the past 20 quarters.”

Michael Stephan, Sales Director, Monterey Mushrooms

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a Red Delicious or a Budweiser—they’ve set a standard for a reason. But as Michael walks me through the comparison, I know exactly what he’s conveying; in striking out for new innovations, Monterey Mushrooms is improving upon the standards those category-leading items have already set. Brown mushrooms not only have a distinct flavor, but they also speak to the inherent foodie that many shoppers are becoming.

Speculating on consumer buying behavior can sometimes feel like grasping water: The data might be there, but holding onto it long enough to enact operational change? That’s the challenge.

“Just 15 years ago, we were growing a mix of 90 percent white mushrooms and 10 percent brown mushrooms,” Michael notes. “Today, we grow over 40 percent brown mushrooms, and I predict that our mix of whites to browns will be 50/50 by the end of the year.”

Alongside changes in production, Monterey Mushrooms has added new SKUs to meet the needs of its retail and club customers.

“We now grow an equal share of conventional and organic mushroom packages. We have added the larger 16 oz and 24 oz packages for Baby Bella mushrooms, because, as you know, ‘those who like mushrooms, actually love mushrooms!’” Michael comments.

He also tells me mushrooms are an expandable consumption category, just like strawberries, meaning the more consumers buy, the more they will use. Mushrooms “own” versatility, and versatility allows consumers to use up any extra mushrooms in their next recipe and meal.

Monterey Mushrooms is not only adapting to the category change, but ensuring it stays ahead of the curve.

“Our sister company, Amycel, has bred two strains of brown mushrooms called Brawn and Heirloom that currently enjoy a 90 percent global market share of the brown mushrooms grown throughout the world,” Michael reveals, and the number takes me aback for a moment. “Spawn development—like a seed for a plant, remember we belong to the larger fungal kingdom—is essential in growing a mushroom that appeals to the consumer in terms of appearance, freshness, and taste. It also needs to appeal to the growers with yield, quality, and consistency.”

“Without sounding like an overly proud parent, mushrooms are on top of everything good.”

On the operational front, Monterey Mushrooms makes sure to plan effectively and strategically to meet the needs of its buy-side partners.

“For our fresh farms, the operations team constantly adjusts the weekly square footage planted to ensure we grow enough Baby Bellas for our customers,” Michael adds.

Aside from making changes to its overall program, Monterey Mushrooms is looking down the road to where mushrooms situate themselves in the American diet—and how the company can be there to answer for both on-trend and unforeseen changes.

“Mushrooms have landed on several Hot Food Trends lists in recent years, but, most importantly, they’re the answer to many consumer questions. Mushrooms are the only natural, non-animal source of vitamin D,” Michael asserts, pointing out the importance of vitamin D for many Americans is why the FDA changed its nutritional labeling in 2020 to list it as a required nutrient. “Mushrooms are also the answer to a low-sodium diet. The inclusion of umami in mushrooms, the fifth category of taste in food (besides sweet, sour, salt, and bitter) results in a lower need for sodium to get that satiation desired in many foods. Essentially, we’re the answer for plant-based or plant-forward meals, as mushrooms can blend in with any protein to make a healthier version of that protein.”

Michael pauses for a moment, looking for just the right example.

“For instance, if you blend in 25 percent of diced mushrooms with ground beef, you’ve just lowered the fat, cholesterol, and sodium by 25 percent. Without sounding like an overly proud parent, mushrooms are on top of everything good,” he says.

Category growth can sometimes feel like category upheaval, but in the fight for wellness, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If anything, the popularity of brown mushrooms accounts for a paradigm shift in the eyes of consumers—and that only spells out a boon for our industry. We’re seeing the savviness of shoppers in real-time, and those of us able to meet and roll with the change will thrive.

Monterey Mushrooms, as you can tell, is doing just that—enhancing people’s lives one mushroom at a time. 

Shifting the Umami Paradigm