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Vitamin D Enhancement In Mushrooms: Can This Be A Portal For The Produce Department Into Functional Foods? Professor Neal Hooker Of St. Joseph’s University Unveils The Latest Research At New York Produce Show And Conference

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 20, 2011

One of the beautiful facets of The New York Produce Show and Conference is that it draws on the great centers of learning in the region to create a workshop program that is both informative and useful.

It serves the great public purpose of taking research that might otherwise sit neglected in the academy and bring it to the field of battle in commerce and industry. Simultaneously the program allows industry members to open their minds to new ways of building business.

This year we’ve highlighted a few of the workshops:

What’s In A Name? Professor Brad Rickard Of Cornell Produces New Research That Indicates Shakespeare May Have Been In Error… On Apples At Least

Cornell Professors To Present At The New York Produce Show And Conference: New Ways of Thinking About Local: Can The East Coast Develop A Broccoli Industry?

ETHNIC AMERICA: Opportunities For Growers, Wholesalers And Retailers In Ethnic Produce Items... Rutgers University’s Dr. Ramu Govindasamy Unveils New Research

Last year we were lucky enough to have a presentation from John Stanton, Professor and Chairman, Food Marketing Department at St. Joseph’s University. We previewed the presentation with this piece:

Research To Be Unveiled At The New York Produce Show And Conference Shows ‘Local’ Preference Versus Organic

And it brought some fan mail we highlighted here:

Pundit Mailbag — Professor John Stanton’s Presentation At New York Produce Show And Conference ‘Worth The Registration Fee Alone’

Now this year we have a St. Joseph’s faculty member working at the conflux of marketing, functional foods and public health. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Dr. Neal H. Hooker
CJ McNutt Professor of Food Marketing
Saint Joseph’s University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Q: Dole through its partnership with Oakshire Mushroom Farm, and Monterey Mushrooms in a collaborative research effort with USDA, have been innovative pioneers in developing Vitamin D enhanced mushroom products using different technologies, first launching products in the marketplace back in 2008. Supported by the Mushroom Council, other companies in the industry have also been exploring ways to penetrate the market. Executives say the category has been slow to take off, or that interest is sporadic, but they point to various factors that could jumpstart new opportunities. [Editor’s note: we will be running future pieces on developments within the industry].

Tell us how your grant to study Vitamin D mushrooms came about. Could your research play a role in stimulating the category?  

A: This new marketing research grant allows us to look at obstacles to consumption of Vitamin D mushrooms and marketing processes, and in the bigger picture learn how we can help manufacturers think about not only ways to approach Vitamin D nutrition attributes but different health and wellness initiatives. This USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative, a two-year project, is trying to help create opportunities for growers, and nutrition messaging is a part of that.

Q: How are you positioning the project to achieve broader applications? Do you have a strategic direction outlined?

A: Our project is an interdisciplinary systems approach linking production methods and marketing communication strategies focused on consumer needs and wants.

Dr. John Stanton and I are both joint investigators on the ground. John is the principle investigator, and I’m the co-principal investigator. Gary Schroeder, president and founder of Oakshire Mushroom Farm, is also a collaborator. We each have different strengths we bring to the mix.

We’re looping in with the Mushroom Council so that they understand what we’re doing and what’s involved, and we can see what they’ve done in the past. We’re talking with Dole and Monterey Mushrooms as well. This study is very inclusive. There are not just academics doing this, and we think the results will be very illustrative of real solutions.

Q: Could you elaborate on the impetus for the case study?

A: There are Vitamin D-enhanced mushroom products on the market already. Products have been introduced using two alternative technologies and production systems in the U.S. to bolster the Vitamin D content in mushrooms. Other countries also are pursuing Vitamin D mushrooms. I was in Australia, where much research is being done in this area, and was surprised to learn that Vitamin D deficiency is just as much a problem there as here.

Parenthetically, in Australia, the problem is exacerbated due to a powerful government campaign to stop skin cancer, which encourages consumers to wear hats, cover themselves up and avoid the sun, the primary natural vehicle for achieving proper amount of Vitamin D. Ironically, the public health message to minimize skin cancer also results in consumers downsizing Vitamin D levels.

We found it to be an intriguing topic. Vitamin D mushrooms are on the market for quite some time, but have not necessarily been accepted as much as the industry would like. Our study is intended to help fine tune the message, look for alternative positioning strategies, and come up with a research base of what the communication strategies should be.

Q: With your background, did you go into this grant with a hypothesis?

A: With any of these grants, we don’t have all the answers at the beginning. We were excited about this grant. It relates to and fits very well with my body of work and position as CJ McNutt chair at Saint Joseph’s.

I’ve done produce marketing research in the past, mostly looking at food safety and nutrition and also sustainability strategies. Food safety studies involved recalls in fresh produce as well as poultry. I did some work specifically with fresh-cuts, where we teamed up with the International Fresh Cut Produce Association (now part of United Fresh Produce Association) and surveyed quality management systems. We connected with Rutgers and the Food Policy Institute in examining issues related to the spinach outbreak.

Most recently, I’ve done a lot of work on front-of-pack symbols, looking at the traffic light system in UK, and continue to update studies on health claims. I also received another USDA grant on organic food marketing, evaluating consumer labeling issues, not just for organic products, but for processed foods that use organic ingredients.

Q: For this grant, how will you go about getting answers?

A: Our study comprises both a production and marketing program. We’ll have comparisons of different production techniques, broadly how Vitamin D levels get elevated, as well as analyzing the packaging, and product form. We’re not dismissive of those steps. We think of production aspects as well as food marketing aspects, but both John Stanton and I are focusing on qualitative work, message texting work to try and tease out what consumers understand right now about Vitamin D deficiencies and mushrooms as a source of Vitamin D.

We want to be inclusive of all dimensions, sliced or whole, pound or bags. We want to explore all the packaging and promotional optimization we have right now, and to extend from there.  

John has conducted preliminary studies on where consumers are right now with Vitamin D mushrooms, but we don’t think the research is sufficient.

Q: How is that research being considered during your present work?

A: John ran those focus groups. One of the lessons he takes from that is that it’s a matter of selling more mushrooms to people already buying mushrooms. It’s not a process of bringing new people into mushrooms. If consumers are motivated to seek out Vitamin D, they’ll look for other alternatives. His earlier research might be an indication of this. However, we won’t take these initial findings as a given. A hypothesis we’ll test is if that’s the case after presenting the message in different ways. General awareness has changed. It will influence how we frame the communication.

We will do a sample focus group round, then surveys of consumers to try and extrapolate on the information. The focus group stage is qualitative and we can get rich data; not just to learn if consumers are interested in Vitamin D mushrooms, but why they are interested. To really get a quantitative marketing strategy, we need the survey stage, where we test package design, messaging, ways of talking about Vitamin D, whether on the front of pack or elsewhere, supported by some website material, in store merchandising, etc.

After that step, we start the generalization. In the first phase of the market test focus group, we put people virtually in a store produce section with mushrooms that may or may not be Vitamin D-enhanced. We see their reaction as close to what it would be in store as we can get. We create different scenarios for representative consumers. Do you notice this? Maybe a banner displays, “Have you had your Vitamin D today?” As you know, what makes this topic so interesting is that Vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms provide a single source way of getting the FDA daily recommended amount of Vitamin D. And mushrooms are the only item in the produce section that has any Vitamin D if taken through the treatment.

Consumers associate that milk is fortified with Vitamin D; it’s a standard, so it’s not good to use the word fortified when describing Vitamin D mushrooms.

Q: Does the technology side confuse or scare uninformed consumers? How important is educating consumers, whether on the methods to produce Vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms or about the health risks associated with Vitamin D deficiencies? In recent years, there has been newfound media attention on the virtues of Vitamin D. Won’t this kind of exposure increase consumer awareness and be a catalyst to industry marketing efforts? 

A: In the fundamentals, this is what we discuss. How much do consumers want to know about the process? How do we walk them along the path of how else this technology is used? In forming the parameters of our study, we made the decision not to educate consumers about the importance of Vitamin D. 

Over the next few years, there will be growing discussions about the need for Vitamin D, which is undersupplied in the diet. There are initiatives in other foods to augment Vitamin D through other sources, such as baked goods through yeast. We’re not going to be the only ones talking about Vitamin D in the next two years of our grant.

I can give you an analogy. In the past 18 months, there has been a huge spike of gluten-free products. We’re not saying that our way is the only way to talk about this claim.

We talk about laddering. To get consumers to really understanding why they need a certain product, we have to educate them up to it. They may start out thinking, “I guess I need it, I’m not getting enough, how much do I need?” …and the next step is “how do I get it?”

Q: Building on the preliminary research Dr. Stanton conducted, are you gearing your work toward particular consumer groups? For example, would the target shoppers already be buying mushrooms regularly and the goal would be to trade them up to Vitamin D products, as opposed to attempting to convert an infrequent mushroom shopper? Could it be easier to win over a younger shopper preferring healthy, natural products over supplements versus an elderly shopper, who is already set with a doctor’s prescription to cover numerous ailments?

A: We’re talking to consumers that have already started to climb that ladder in how we frame the issue. We’re going into it thinking consumers are already understanding the need for Vitamin D. Again different consumers are at different points of that ladder. Some haven’t set foot on the wrung of the ladder. Are we really trying to sell more mushrooms to a mushroom lover or to everybody?

In the first case, you’re trying to move current mushroom consumers to buying more or different types. Depending on the target audience, there are different market development issues. By getting involved early on in a product category as researchers we’re salivating. We’re at the beginning of the lifecycle of this category, so it’s exciting to see what we can do to grow it.

We’d like to generalize our findings at the end to other categories. This seemed to work for Vitamin D mushrooms, so how can these techniques and strategies be applied elsewhere?

The research is driven on an applied topic, but in recognizing what grants are supposed to do, we want to generalize; that’s why I’m intrigued to be on this product, not only to study ways to increase consumption of Vitamin D mushrooms, but to couch our research in the broader context. We want to do parallel studies in products like cranberries and figs. Figs, for example, can have a higher content of resveratrol than red wine.

Q: Industry executives anticipate the tide changing with the influx of press coverage on Vitamin D and the growing number of reputable scientific reports documenting the need to increase daily allotment. Concurrently, FDA is reportedly looking to change Vitamin D intake guidelines, following recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. Could these factors amid the overall push in health and wellness campaigns recharge consumer interest in Vitamin D mushrooms? Do you weigh these variables into your research analysis?

A: Tracking news, we have to account for that in our research. Consumers’ knowledge, understanding and motivation will affect what we are studying. We have to consider that without patronizing them.

Q: Have you assessed the reasons why more consumers weren’t initially wowed by Vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms? Do you think it was more a matter of timing?

A: We think the category wasn’t rolled out with everything well-designed. It would have looked very different in 2008, not just in hindsight, but awareness was very different. MyPlate from USDA has influenced consumer interest, and other campaigns have facilitated to help this along. Now that it’s grounded in the right context, there is new opportunity in the industry.  

Q: Dole, in conjunction with Oakshire Mushroom, recently came out with a Portabella Mushroom Vitamin D Powder, which it is marketing to both retail and foodservice companies as an ingredient with multiple uses. Its form is suited to receiving higher levels of Vitamin D through the company’s technology process. Will items like this change the trajectory?

A: When we talk about form, we need to understand what form consumers want this product delivered, and would they be interested in the multiple benefits if distributed as an ingredient. There are many interesting consumer issues to consider.

We’re going to do new things with this project, different dimensions that we may not have done before. The marketing aspect involves building up a produce section. This is fairly easy to do in Photoshop where you place consumers in that environment. In the past we’ve done similar things with computer screens, but we want to do more with a virtual big screen; zoom in and out of it to test merchandising and product packaging, to place the consumer at the point of decision, and then try different sets and ways of marketing. Do we put Vitamin D mushrooms around other mushrooms or in a healthier-for-you section by blueberries, edamame and other items deemed to have unique health benefits?

There’s always a ranking, and it is one thing we can play with in this environment. If a consumer comes into the produce section remembering about Vitamin D, how do we capitalize on that? What messages do we put on the package and at the point of purchase? We’ve seen a lot of nutrition packs in the produce section, with marketing on a board or placard by the box. Do we merchandise a fresh-cut version alongside nutrition packs supported by variable weight items, etc.

We start broad with the focus group to start narrowing down, then the quantitative part to exclude and test to the market stage. Most academic studies stop at the quantitative stage because it’s harder to do. Because this is so applied and real, we want to include that process.

Q: What is the overriding message you’d like to share with attendees during your talk at The New York Produce Show?

A: We don’t have all the answers, but our presentation at the New York Produce Show and Conference will make clear why we’re so energized about this opportunity and why the produce industry should be as well. We are looking forward to the New York event as an outlet to spur conversation regarding functional foods and  how the lessons we are learning regarding Vitamin D Mushrooms could both boost the mushroom category and be applied in parallel ways to other produce items.

We are fully engaged with industry so there are not just academics doing this, we think the results will be very illustrative of real solution for the mushroom category, for the produce department and for public health.

For all the talk about the healthy nature of produce, there is precious little evidence that merely talking about healthy produce boosts sales or consumption.  Even listing the vitamins contained by various items seems sort of pointless as there is no known deficiency in most cases.

This initiative, though, is different.  There is a real issue with Vitamin D Deficiency, and many people are getting tested and finding out they have a problem. Produce also is, in general, a poor source of Vitamin D. So if mushrooms can be made a rich source of vitamin D, it could be a source for additional sales both to mushroom lovers who now have an extra reason to consume mushrooms and to people not yet enamored of mushrooms but who might become so as they seek “functional foods” that will help them deal with their Vitamin D deficiency.

We also think this issue has broader ramifications.  In produce, we are used to marketing the products we have. This is about creating products that meet specific consumer needs. One wonders if, for example, fresh-cut vendors couldn’t create lines not around flavors or ingredients but around health needs. A line of products for diabetics, for example?

It also raises marketing issues — can we  become good at helping consumers discriminate between different types of the same product because one has been imbued with a special nutritional aspect? Or should we simply enhance all mushrooms with vitamin D the way all salt is sold with iodine?

In any case, we look forward to learning more at The New York Produce Show and Conference.

You can register to attend right here.

Hotel rooms are available at this link.

Travel Discounts are Found here.

At the registration link you can also sign up your spouse or significant other for a great program. We have six terrific tours and, new this year, a Global Trade Symposium and our IDEATION FRESH Foodservice Forum. All can be registered at this link.

If you would like to consider sponsoring or exhibiting, let us know right here.

We look forward to seeing you in New York!         

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