After running his own butcher shop in New York City where he offered items such as handmade burgers and marinated steak tips, Douglas Cohen sold the business in 2016.
“It was no longer aligning with my principles,” Cohen — a carnivore turned vegetarian — told Food Dive.
But not long after he sold the butcher shop, Cohen started focusing his attention on developing a new jerky product that was more attuned to his way of thinking. At the same time, he didn't want to stray far from the popular attributes he loved about meat, so he focused on replicating the same taste and texture without the damaging impact on the environment. He found the solution in an increasingly popular ingredient: mushrooms.
Today, Cohen runs New York Mushroom Co, which grows, packages and distributes its jerky in his local area. Most of the nascent company’s sales are online, but a few local retailers near its operations in Long Island, New York carry the brand.
“My goal is to make plant-based eating friendly and fun,” said Cohen, who has been fascinated with the taste, texture and savoriness of mushrooms since childhood.
The much-maligned fungus has long been viewed as a polarizing food, admonished for its mushiness or what some say is off-putting flavor. Still, the fungus has seen a rebirth in recent years as consumers look for better-for-you ingredients they recognize.
“I didn’t know how polarizing they are,” Michael Pan, the founder of Pan's Mushroom Jerky, which came to market last year, told Food Dive. “Some people just don’t like mushrooms.”
A popular meat substitute
Mushrooms are touted for a host of benefits, including antioxidants, essential vitamins, and their role in boosting immunity and fiber. Increasingly, companies using mushrooms have included them in snacks and other portable items, removing consumers' need to prepare and cook them, and making them a more convenient, shelf-stable option for on-the-go consumers.
“I didn’t know how polarizing they are. Some people just don’t like mushrooms.”
Founder, Pan's Mushroom Jerky
The global mushroom market is projected to jump from $34.1 billion in 2015 to $69.3 billion by the end of 2024, amid growing consumer interest in functional foods and food as medicine.
Mushrooms have increasingly attracted the interest of Big Food in recent years. In 2017, Kellogg invested in MycoTechnology, a Colorado firm making vegan shiitake mushroom-based protein, through its VC arm. And General Mills has invested $3 million in Purely Elizabeth, which uses functional mushroom powder in its wellness bars.
Mushrooms also can be a lucrative crop for farmers and companies, especially with volatile price swings in commodities such as milk, and trade disruptions impacting corn and soybeans. Fresh shiitakes can wholesale for $10 to $12 a pound, with dried mushrooms going for $6 to $8 an ounce, according to FarmProgress.
Christopher Gaulke, a lecturer in food and beverage management at Cornell University, told Food Dive the popularity of mushrooms is unlikely to abate as consumers continue to embrace fresh foods and shift toward fruits and vegetables in lieu of meat.
Gaulke said mushrooms are an attractive alternative to meat for consumers because they offer a similar flavor profile, most notably with umami, the savory and flavor-enhancing fifth primary taste. As a result, mushrooms offer more of an incentive for consumers to eat them instead of meat, without losing many of the attributes they enjoy in the animal-based product.
"As long as we maintain the fresh food focus that we've had for the last couple of decades, I think we're going to see mushrooms stay as prominent as they have been." Gaulke said. "If we continue this meat reduction, ... mushrooms are going to play a huge role."
Some mushrooms, like portabello, can be pricey but are often found at high-end restaurants where people are paying more for better cuts of beef or meat that's been locally raised, he said. In most cases, the common white button or baby bella mushrooms can cost the same or less than commodity-grade beef found in most locations.
'Right on trend'
The mushroom trend has even been a boon to South Mill Champs, one of the country's largest producers of the fungus. The company, which has been growing mushrooms for 80 years, is expanding production to double its growing capacity to 4 million pounds a week within a few years.
In an effort to tap into growing demand for snacking, South Mill Champs in February launched a new packaged line called Shrooms Snacks. It offers mushrooms in bar, crisp and jerky forms. As part of the broader rollout, Shrooms Snacks also has a blended jerky version including both mushroom and either a meat (filet mignon or turkey) or a fruit (berries).
The brand also stands to benefit from growing consumer demand for transparency about where their food comes from because South Mill Champs can incorporate the mushrooms its grows into its own products.
“People just haven’t known until recently the true value of a mushroom. Now, it seems everyone is using them in some form.”
Director of innovation and business development, Shrooms Snacks
“We’re right on trend with all of the things that consumers are looking for,” David Eberwein, Shrooms Snacks' director of innovation and business development, told Food Dive.
He said South Mill Champs, which raises varieties of mushrooms including portobello, white, shiitake and oyster, decided to introduce a meat/mushroom hybrid because the company was skeptical about whether enough consumers would be willing to switch from meat to the fungus.
“We didn’t want to be too fringe either, recognizing that this has to sell in a retail environment, so [the question became] how do we appeal to that core jerky customer,” Eberwein said. “That’s why we did these bridge items.”
To help educate consumers about mushrooms and their functional benefits, South Mill Champs includes recipe suggestions on fresh mushroom packaging. The company also highlights the extensive health benefits on social media.
Eberwein said he was not concerned about more big food companies entering the mushroom space, noting they will need to find suppliers. To him, this provides further evidence that the once overlooked fungus has finally arrived.
“People just haven’t known until recently the true value of a mushroom,” Eberwein said. “Now, it seems everyone is using them in some form.”