May, 2013

Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis

Substituting Mushrooms For Meat Aids In Control Of Body Weight & Treating Obesity

Article extracted from abstract and executive summary of research conducted at Johns Hopkins university’s Bloomberg School Of Public Health – Principal Investigator: Lawrence J. Cheskin, MD, FACP, Associate Professor, Health, Behavior & Society

The American diet, and increasingly the global diet, is strikingly high in energy density, yet often low in nutrient density. This increase in energy density as well as calorie and fat intake is a major driver of the recent increase in obesity worldwide.

Mushrooms are a low-calorie source of nutrients, and have the added advantage of being useful as substitutes for high-calorie, low nutrient-density foods such as meats. The feasibility and effectiveness of using mushrooms as substitutes for meat in the diet was studied in a controlled clinical trial at the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, a program of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in Baltimore, MD.

This study specifically examined the potential of white button mushrooms as a tool for controlling body weight and treating obesity.

Participants in this study were recruited via advertisements, which were placed in local newspapers (Baltimore Sun, City Paper), as well as via flyers posted at local sites (supermarket bulletin boards, e.g.) and on campus. The study included a total of 209 adult men and women aged 18 and older with a body-mass index between 25-40 (overweight to obese), who were interested in losing weight and reported a willingness to substitute white button mushrooms for beef in their daily meals over the course of one year. Final analysis included 74 participants, for a drop-out rate of 65% after 12 months.

Participants agreed to be randomly assigned to one of two diets: one based on the USDA Food Guide Pyramid with a reduced calorie level individualized to their needs (standard diet), or the standard diet plan enhanced by substituting some meat dishes with mushrooms (mushroom diet).

Participants assigned to the standard diet were instructed on various methods to improve their diet, without the recommendation of mushroom substitution. Both groups received vouchers for local grocery stores in the amount of $6 per week. Participants assigned to the mushroom diet were required to substitute mushrooms (8oz) for meat at three different meals each week, while participants assigned to the standard diet were required to eat 90+% lean ground beef for three meals each week. Purchases were confirmed by the return of the receipt the next visit. Subsequent food vouchers were not given unless proof of mushroom/meat purchase from the previous week was furnished.

Participants underwent a 6-month weight loss period, followed by a 6-month weight maintenance period. They were given diet counseling and were instructed on making healthy food choices. Since the study was a single-blinded clinical trial, the study counselor was not aware of the diet group to which the participant was randomized. The participants were instructed to not mention their diet assignment to the investigator conducting the counseling.

Baseline and follow-up measures of body weight, blood chemistries, and measures of oxidative stress, inflammation, and immunity were collected.

Results were that the people following the mushroom diet lost an average of 7 pounds, or 3.6% of their starting weight, and lowered their BMI, waist size, and percent body fat significantly, while people following the standard diet lost an average of only 2.2 pounds, or 1.1% of their starting weight. There were also significant improvements in blood pressure, triglycerides, fasting blood glucose, and cholesterol on the mushroom diet.

Following initial weight loss, people following the mushroom-rich weight maintenance diet maintained that loss well. Those who completed the full 12-month study period still weighed 7 lbs less than before starting their diet plan. HDL-cholesterol levels also showed significant improvement at 12 months compared to baseline levels. Blood pressure and serum triglycerides also were significantly improved at this time point.  It is well known that maintenance of lost weight can be more challenging than even the initial task of losing weight, so the high degree of weight maintenance seen in the mushroom group is very promising.

Further, consuming a mushroom-enriched diet led to improvements in measures of inflammation and oxidative stress, known to be markers of increased risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other leading health problems.

One aspect of the findings is worthy of note: The drop-out rate, at 65% after 12 months, is high, but not out of line with other long-term weight loss studies. It is revealing that the rate of drop-out is no different between the mushroom-consuming group and the standard diet group, indicating that even people asked to eat mushrooms regularly for an entire year were no more likely to drop out of the study than people with no dietary requirements to eat mushrooms regularly. This speaks well for the long-term acceptability of regular mushroom consumption.

The cost of dieting using mushrooms as substitutes for high fat, high energy density meats and other foods would be quite favorable as well. Future work could calculate these cost savings, and benefits.

The results of this work demonstrate that a diet using mushrooms as a substitute for high-calorie foods such as meats can be helpful for adults seeking to control their weight and improve blood pressure, cholesterol, and measures of oxidative stress and inflammation. This message can be a driver of increased interest in the use of mushrooms by the general public.


A Clear Concept, But Execution Is Tricky

We have had the opportunity to taste both 100 percent mushroom substitutes and blends of meat and mushrooms. The exciting news is that these options taste great — so great that chefs of high caliber are now exploring ways to use these mushrooms in all sorts of dishes. Indeed the Mushroom Council has been brilliant in working closely with the Culinary Institute of America to introduce chefs to this concept.

This is really crucial. There are a lot of things that can improve health outcomes in one’s diet, but most are perceived as a sacrifice of taste by consumers. Here is an opportunity to boost health outcomes without sacrifice. One can easily see areas such as school foodservice being early adopters in using such substitutes in vast quantities.

The problem, as much as anything, is a marketing one. The product tastes great, is priced well and is very versatile. The question is what is it?

Calling something a meat substitute is the kiss of death — people don’t want substitutes put in for reasons of health; they want foods that on their own merits deserve to be on the menu.

We know from long experience that if one wants to kill one’s exciting new line of culinary offerings that taste great and just happen to be healthier options, set aside a page of the menu in a restaurant and label it “Diet Options” or “Healthy Menu.”

The message such declarations send to consumers is that here is an item that isn’t good enough to be on our regular menu, but we will offer it in case you want to sacrifice taste to lose weight or be healthier. The whole concept transforms going out to eat from a joyous indulgence to a marginalizing disappointment.

So this product — and its application —  needs a name and a marketing position that says: We stand on taste! If this product gets marginalized as a healthy meat substitute, it will never have a tenth of the market it could get if it is perceived as a delicious product that happens to be healthy.

The concept is clear, but the execution is tricky. The term Mushroom has its own meaning in the minds of the consumers, and this is really a different application, so simply calling this product Mushroom adds confusion. Ground beef is, of course, well-established in the diet, perhaps the most popular food in the country. What is the marketing space for this product?

We think the place to really start positioning this application is college foodservice. Primary and secondary schools are a ready market, but it might be seen as being adopted for reasons of economy and thus blunt the long term success. Certainly the elementary school lunch line is not thought of as a paragon of culinary innovation to be emulated in adulthood. McDonald’s and hamburger chains are big volume, but none will simply switch over from ground beef to mushrooms and so they will market the product, if at all, as a diet burger and, once again, kill the product.

College and university foodservice, though, is the perfect market. You have growing numbers of vegetarians interested in pure mushroom products and a general interest in sustainability that encourages a more plant-based diet. These consumers, not yet out on their own, are still in the process of establishing their eating and buying habits. They tend to be more open to new trends, new cuisines, new foods and new ideas. Plus, if you want something on every menu in ten years, get college students to enjoy it now.

Maybe the best strategy would be for the Mushroom Council to do a partnership with 10 universities, get the product on the menu and then run a competition for the best name. Maybe there could be a prize for the individual and a donation to the school that comes up with the best branding. Maybe there could be a formal contest in which Business School students have an opportunity to present proposals for marketing campaigns, a winner is selected at each school and then the 10 winning teams present at a “shoot-out” before the Mushroom Council and its ad agency.

There is a great deal of health-related research that is done in the produce industry, but most of it focuses on determining attributes of product high in a particular vitamin or in anti-oxidants or what not. What both the Mushroom Council and the Australian Mushroom Growers’ Association should be lauded for is funding research that goes beyond identifying product attributes, many with unknown or questionable impact on health. 

These two organizations anted up to actually study the health-related impact of consuming their product. They hit the jackpot when they found that very small changes in diet can have a big impact on weight and other healthful indicators.

All our industry efforts to increase consumption should never forget one thing: In order to increase produce consumption in general, we need to increase consumption of specific items.

Here we have a truly delicious item that is also good for you. If we can’t make this specific item fly big time, it bodes extremely poorly for efforts to increase consumption in general.