Does the Veganuary mushroom sales boom hint at future consumer habits?

With sales of mushrooms one of the talking points from January’s plant-based drive, Food Spark talks to Asda’s Mark Richmond about the potential meaning behind the fungi phenomenon 

4 March 2020
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There can be no doubt that Veganuary 2020 was a huge success. A reported 400,000 people signed up to this year’s edition of the annual vegan push, committing to go meat-free for the month. Supermarkets, in turn, jumped at the chance to provide comprehensive meal solutions, with sales of vegan sandwiches in particular reported to have gone through the roof.

Another focus for vegans (temporary or otherwise) during January was mushrooms, with Waitrose revealing that online searches for mushrooms increased enormously over the month, specifically Shiitake mushrooms (+49%), oyster mushrooms (+61%) and exotic mushrooms (+193%).

“As customers look to be more experimental and add interest and additional flavours to their vegan dishes, we’ve seen sales of our exotic mushrooms rise 16% compared to last year. We’re also seeing more shoppers opting for chestnut mushrooms, with sales up 7%,” said Jane Shaw, mushroom buyer at Waitrose & Partners.

But will the mushroom madness continue into the year? Was it just a Veganuary spike? And is there greater meaning behind the month-long fungi phenomenon?

Beyond the meat alternative

At the beginning of January, Asda launched their first dedicated vegan range, Plant Based, with Mark Richmond, head innovation development chef at Asda, telling Food Spark that while there was a huge spike in mushroom sales during Veganuary, sales of fungi at the supermarket have been “pretty flat with small growth” beyond it, with this hinting at a specific direction for long-term flexitarian cooks.

“The way I see it is, in terms of the growth of plant-based cuisine, that people would look for meat alternatives to start with as they’re a transitioning type of product,” he says. “It’s quite easy to switch a meat alternative in and the meat out.

“You can cook your usual repertoire of meals by using meat alternatives. For example, if you want a burger, most of the burger is actually plant-based anyway with all its trimmings, but the hardest thing is replacing the meat (unless you just swap in a meat patty substitute).”

Asda has seen an influx of people looking to cut down on meat, says Mark, with meat alternatives the easy option to use every now and again for most. But, when faced with a whole month of plant-based, other potential options – such as mushrooms - open up.

“Those looking to cut down for Veganuary might not want a plant-based burger every day, so they open their repertoire up to more cuisines, more cooking and more recipes. They might not go for the easy solutions because, if they did, they'd be eating the same things every day!”

Food Spark recently discussed the rise of the vegan scratch cook and the impact vegan ready meals might have on curious consumers, with exotic mushrooms potentially a port of call for plant-based cooks looking to investigate beyond the ‘chicken’ and ‘beef’ alternatives on the market.

Striking a balance

Asda are looking at expanding their mushroom range in the near future, with Mark hosting a recent workshop on viable recipes for a range of different fungi – with particular focus on cutting down on meat rather than removing it entirely.

One example was a beef bourguignon with mushroom instead of meat, with striking a balance between meat and plant-based key.

“For that recipe, I left the bacon, red wine and beef stock in,” explains Richmond. “So, I was reducing the meat, but I still had all the same flavours of a classic bourguignon.

“I feel in my bones that the future of plant-based will be all about balance. Not everyone will be 100% plant based. We’re just going to eat better meat, less of it, and have more balance.

“People will still want to eat meat; we’ll just reduce the amount we’re taking in.”

Educating consumers on cooking with mushrooms will be a part of any future fungi releases in stores, with replicating meatiness through umami one of Richmond’s developmental directions. 

“From a chef’s perspective, when we do development work with ingredients, we look for products like mushrooms which have high levels of umami,” explains Richmond.

“It’s easier to replicate meatiness and the sensation of eating meat with ingredients such as mushrooms and tomato puree. It’s about making the saliva glands go which, if you’re a meat eater, is what you associate with enjoyable food.”

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