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You can’t walk more than a few aisles in the grocery store these days without running into some kind of new mushroom product. Fresh white button mushrooms are increasingly joined by specialty varieties like lion’s mane, maitake or oyster mushrooms. There’s sparkling cordyceps tea and chaga coffee boasting a range of health benefits, mushroom chips and even chocolate bars infused with reishi.
Mushrooms have been steadily growing in popularity in the US over the last decade, said Eric Davis, a representative of the Mushroom Council. Mushrooms frequently top food trends lists and were even named “ingredient of the year” in 2022 by the New York Times. According to the consumer consultancy Circana, grocery store sales of fresh mushrooms have increased by 20% over the past decade, while sales of specialty mushrooms have doubled in the same timeframe.
“A few years ago, we were saying ‘mushrooms are definitely having a moment right now, let’s enjoy it.’ Here we are three or four years later, and it’s still happening,” Davis said.
So what’s behind the craze that’s allowed mushrooms to sustain such momentum?
Meet the mushroompreneurs
As co-founder of Smallhold, the best-known provider of specialty mushrooms in the US, Andrew Carter has had a front-row seat to this mushroom moment. Though Smallhold has been growing varieties like blue oyster and lion’s mane in indoor farms since 2017, the company’s founders witnessed an inflection point during the lockdowns in 2020, when they went from selling their produce to restaurants in Brooklyn to selling direct to consumer.
“Average consumption of mushrooms in the country at that point was something like 2lb per person per year,” Carter said. “But our customers were buying 5lb once a week … it just showed how much room there is to inject more mushrooms into someone’s diet.”
Just a few years later, Smallhold products are carried in over 1,000 grocery stores across the nation. There, Smallhold has been joined by a variety of brands selling mushrooms to an increasingly mycologically curious American public.
Mushrooms aren’t new to everyone’s palates, of course. Growing up Chinese American, mushrooms were a standard part of Marilyn Yang’s diet, and one that got her made fun of as a kid (China is the world’s leading producer of mushrooms by a long shot). Seeing them take off as an adult has made the food entrepreneur feel like “oh, people are finally catching up,” she said. Now, she’s helping spread her lifelong love of mushrooms with Popadelics, the snack company she co-founded, which sells mushroom chips in flavors such as parmesan truffle and Thai chili.
“There’s no reason that mushrooms can’t be as good of a carrier of flavor as a potato chip or tortilla chip can be,” she said. “It’s just about introducing people to different ways that mushrooms can be used.” After launching in spring of 2022, the brand is now stocked in over 600 retail partners nationwide.
A (food) star is born
If you ask five different people how a food becomes part of the zeitgeist, you might get five different answers.
It would be easy to suspect well-funded marketing campaigns from industry lobbying groups might play a role – think the ubiquitous Got Milk? ads of the 1990s and 2000s, sponsored by the dairy lobby. And the Mushroom Council has certainly tried its best to encourage more mushroom eating. But as Alicia Kennedy points out in her book No Meat Required, sometimes produce becomes popular in a much more organic – and mysterious – way.
One version of the story of kale’s ascendancy claims that it all came down to the work of one PR person who decided to push kale simply because she liked it. Another version, espoused by Elly Truesdell, a former trend-spotter for Whole Foods and VC who invests in new food brands, goes like this: kale became popular because trend-setting chefs such as Dan Barber, of Blue Hill at Stone Barns fame, started using it. Errol Schweizer, a former grocery merchandiser at Whole Foods, tells a different story: he thinks it all traces back to the 2006 E coli outbreak linked to prepackaged spinach. Kale became an alternate option to fill a sudden void in nutrient-dense leafy greens.
There are at least as many stories to explain why mushrooms seem to be popping up everywhere. From Carter’s perspective, 2020’s lockdowns played a key role in prompting people to experiment with new ingredients in their home cooking. And the way that time period coincided with the success of films such as Fantastic Fungi on Netflix and the growth in medical psilocybin research, increased the public’s interest in mushrooms.
Truesdell also called attention to the growing role that social media platforms are playing in whether a food gains traction or not. “Color, beauty and imagery is a huge part of whether things actually stick, because we now are engaging with foods so visually, and often on a screen,” she said. Coming in an array of otherworldly, visually striking forms, fresh mushrooms are photogenic in a way that gives them an edge in the digital era.
If mushrooms started to take off a few years ago, a number of factors have kept them in the spotlight. The growing interest in foraging and wild foods, in which mushrooms feature prominently – especially with unusual weather creating “once-in-a-generation shroom booms” in recent years – may have helped. And pop culture phenomenons such as the TV show The Last of Us have continued to capture the public imagination with fungi-centric storylines.
From Davis’s perspective, it’s not so much that mushrooms are trending as that they fit into the wider food trends, or priorities, emerging for many Americans, including personal and planetary wellbeing They’re a hearty, umami-rich meat substitute. They’re a generous source of vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber. And they can grow on waste materials.
No silver bullet
Other food trends offer something of a cautionary tale in treating any one food as a panacea, however. Quinoa, avocados and almond milk have all been hailed as sustainability and health wins, but their sudden rise to prominence has sometimes coincided with a growing number of human rights abuses and water crises in their supply chains.
“When there’s a huge spike in demand, there’s often going to be a level of irresponsibility around how that food gets to the place it needs to go, given how the agriculture system works, and the labor that it relies on in huge volumes,” said Truesdell.
For now, even in spite of mushrooms’ spurt in popularity, Americans are nowhere near eating enough of them to put much real strain on existing systems, said Davis. (Truesdell, who describes food trends moving through four stages – inception, adoption, proliferation and finally ubiquity – argues that mushrooms are still only in the first or second stage in the US.) And the fact that the primary culinary varieties are grown indoors on discarded materials such as sawdust sets them apart from crops like quinoa or almonds, which need plenty of water and fertile land to grow.
But for all the good it might do to eat more mushrooms, no ingredient, however healthy or sustainable it may be, will fix the US’s broken food system on its own, Schweizer noted.
“The trends are cool, and they’ve made some things better,” said Schweizer. “But in terms of reversing the systemic issues and inequalities that we see in the food system, that has to be done at the policy level, undergirded by public organizing and pressure on the political system.”