The mushroom industry has known about mushrooms’ nutritional qualities for a long time.
Trouble is, marketing agents say, a lot of the consuming public is only beginning to learn about that message.

“In the past, we have seen that marketing the health benefits of items like pomegranate juice and blueberries helped escalate their sales,” said Jane Rhyno, sales and marketing director for Leamington, Ontario-based Highline Mushrooms. “So many people still do not know what an incredible superfood mushrooms are and we feel there is a lot of potential to capture growth from communicating the nutritional value to consumers.”

Rhyno and her colleagues in the industry are using science to convey that message.

For example, in December of 2010, the Institute of Medicine released the results of a 24-month review on vitamin D and calcium, emphasizing the key role of vitamin D in promoting bone health. The committee set the recommended intake level at 600 IU — triple the previously recommended amount of 200 IU from 1997, according to the San Jose, Calif.-based Mushroom Council.

The industry is spreading the message that mushrooms are “the only source of vitamin D in the produce aisle.”

The Mushroom Council pointed out that the IOM recognized mushrooms as “the exception to the rule that plant foods don’t naturally contain vitamin D.”

According to the council, mushrooms are low in calories and sodium, contain antioxidants selenium and ergothioneine, have as much potassium as a small banana and contain vitamins B-2, B-3 and B-5.

For years, the council has been a partner in the Pink Campaign to fight breast cancer.

In 2009, the council contributed $560,000 to support pilot clinical trials investigating the effects mushrooms have on health. The California Breast Cancer Research Program, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the National Institutes of Health backed the lab studies.

The council has been an advocate of the research ever since, said Bart Minor, the council’s president and chief executive officer.

“Cause-related marketing is becoming more and more prevalent, but it has to be done honestly and with a conscience,” Minor said.

The cause is worthy itself, but higher sales also follow, Minor said.

“In my years of marketing, when we first did this pink campaign, we saw double-digit sales increases,” he said. “We’ve done other things that were successful, and we think 3% to 5% is fairly normal, but we saw outstanding results, and I think it was due to the fact that we weren’t just promoting breast cancer awareness, but the mushroom has invested in the City of Hope and each research facility in Southern California, and it’s mushroom-specific research to see if mushrooms might help reduce the risk of breast cancer.”

It’s not just a council push, said Joe Caldwell, council chairman and vice president of Watsonville, Calif.-based Monterey Mushrooms Inc.

“All of the producers increased their contribution to the City of Hope,” Caldwell said. “There are currently several research projects going on at the City of Hope funded by the Mushroom Council.”

One is a clinical trial specifically for breast cancer research, and it’s in the stage of clinical testing on people.

In October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, pink mushroom tills help promote sales and strengthen customer relations by highlighting an issue important to consumers.

It will be the third year of the campaign.

In the program’s initial year, the 2009 ‘Go Pink’ promotion resulted in the largest movement of mushrooms for any time period, during which pounds sold increased by 12.3% and sales dollars increased by 6.7% compared to the previous month, according to the council. That same period in 2010, sales grew an additional 1.3% in volume and 2.4% in dollars.

With the third-annual “Go Pink” promotion, the Mushroom Council will provide $50,000 to support the City of Hope’s research, totalling more than $700,000 dollars donated by the council since 2002.

The multi-pronged health message is getting through, said James Sweatt, sales director at Gonzales, Texas-based Kitchen Pride Mushroom Farms Inc.

“The council has had several training sessions for salespeople on how to sell mushrooms,” he said. “One of the things they’ve come up with is instead of using mushrooms as a substitute, use them for portion control. Instead of eating a 10- or 12-ounce steak, eat an 8-ounce steak with mushrooms.”