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Mushrooms + UV light = Vitamin D bombs

Mushrooms a weapon in fight against global vitamin D shortage

Vitamin D mushrooms. After three years of effort, the European Commission approved the claim this summer. With the aid of UV light, mushrooms change into small vitamin D bombs. Scelta Mushrooms and Banken Champignons made an effort to also be allowed to use the claim in Europe. Now what? Are consumers ready for ‘functional foods?’ How do you market a product like this?

The technique is simple in theory. Mushrooms contain the substance ergosterol, which is turned into vitamin D under the influence of UV light. “Mushrooms naturally produce vitamin D under the influence of sunlight (UV radiation),” Alex Bos of Banken Champignons explains. Chanterelles and other wild mushrooms picked in forests naturally contain vitamin D. But that’s the theory, the practice is more stubborn. “No vitamin D is produced because mushrooms are grown indoors, and never see sunlight. Illumination occurs after the harvest. The complexity of this can be found in the consistency,” Roy Janssen of Scelta Mushrooms mentions another bottleneck. “To remain within legislation and regulations, the lamps have to constantly be readjusted.”

Claim’s burden of proof important
“It sounds simple,” says Alex. “But you have to give proper shape to the process to guarantee the claim that the mushrooms contain vitamin D. We use patented lamps.” The claim isn’t exclusive to Banken Champignons or Scelta Mushrooms. Other players within the framework of the EFSA process can also get started with UV lamps. “We have a first mover advantage because we gained a lot of knowledge and skill in recent years,” Roy says. “It’s still calm in this field on the market for processed mushrooms, and we’re the only ones to offer these mushrooms.”

Three years of literature and practical research preceded the approval. In those years, Scelta Mushrooms and Banken Champignons worked together to prove the claim. “We worked in a controlled environment for three years so as not to harm the quality of the product, but also to be able to guarantee a percentage of vitamin D,” Alex explains. Other producers are free to market vitamin D mushrooms, but they’ll also have the burden of proof. Companies have to show that the mushrooms contain a certain number of micrograms of vitamin D. “Banken Champignons and Scelta offer their customers the comfort that these claim has been proven, and that it has been officially approved by the European Commission.”

Available this autumn
“It would technically also work with other mushrooms, but that isn’t in our scope,” Roy explains. Scelta Mushrooms practically only works with white mushrooms. That’s not the case for Banken Champignons. With an assortment of various mushrooms, it became an interesting matter. “For now, the claim can only be made for white and brown mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus),” Alex says. “However, considering these are the mushroom varieties sold most, it offers prospects for the continued growth of the category.”

Now that approval has been granted, production can get started. Scelta starts the production of the vitamin D mushrooms at one of their production locations in October. From there, the process will be rolled out to the other branches, until all white mushrooms contain the additional vitamin D in principle. “Not all parts of the mushrooms are as susceptible to this technique. For example, we have a factory where we make flavour enhancers from the stems of the mushrooms. These stems contain less ergosterol, and therefore have less vitamin D than the caps.”

Alex expects that the first fresh mushrooms with vitamin D will be available in supermarkets from September. They couldn’t be available soon enough. When Rob Banken talked to BNR about the new mushrooms earlier this year, the article was picked up by various media. Questions soon started arriving at the company about where the mushrooms would be available. “Health is becoming more and more important,” Alex explains the major interest both nationally and internationally.

Functional foods and meat replacers
The category was already benefiting from the growing number of flexible vegetarians who think mushrooms are a good alternative to meat. Both Banken and Scelta respond to that trend by presenting mushrooms as a meat replacer and meat enhancer. “We’re too far removed from the final consumer to directly influence this trend, we’re looking more at what’s important to our customers,” Roy explains. A new trend is added to that because of the vitamin D claim: functional foods. Banken Champignons responds to that directly. A packaging has been developed for six mushrooms. “This can be offered as a two-person portion, three mushrooms contain 10 micrograms of vitamin D, which is equal to the recommended daily amount of vitamin D.”

Communicating about the new product is one of the biggest challenges. “We have to get the message across,” Alex says. For the communication, the company introduces a new packaging, among other things. “Traditionally, mushrooms are packed in a blue punnet, but we developed a cardboard punnet with a top seal. The advantage of this is that we can inform the consumers using five sides of the punnet, and even the top seal, if necessary.”

International ambition
“We’re constantly in contact with our customers to inform them about the vitamin D mushrooms,” Roy says. Most of the customers of the eco-pouch are active in food service. “They consider it a good addition.” Customers can choose to use the claim and communicate to their customers when offering, for example, a mushroom burger enhanced with vitamin D. “It’s up to the customer to decide to what extent they want to inform final users. Up till now, we haven’t spoken to anyone who objects to the vitamin D mushrooms.”

The vitamin D mushrooms have been available abroad for a while now. The UK and the US have a longer tradition of enhancing food with vitamins and minerals. “It’s a global trend that’s also headed for Europe,” Roy says. It’s therefore not surprising Roy mentions North America as a market where the vitamin D mushrooms will likely be absorbed without any problems. In Europe, the UK will probably be the frontrunner, although interest is increasing in other countries. The British chain Tesco has decided to offer brown mushrooms enhanced with vitamin D as a standard. “This trend can also be seen in Australia and Canada,” Alex adds.

Why is there a vitamin D shortage?
Mushrooms as a source of vitamin D sounds positive, but why is vitamin D so important? Do we have a chronic shortage of vitamin D? Alex: “The body gets vitamin D in two ways. The first is from food, this is good for about one-third of vitamin D in bodies. Two-thirds of the vitamin D is produced by the body itself under influence of sunlight on our skin.” This isn’t a problem in the summer months, when the sun is shining and people tend to be outside more, so the body produces plenty of vitamin D. This changes as days grow shorter, when the sun is less high in the sky and it’s often hidden behind grey clouds, in short, when autumn starts. It becomes more difficult for bodies to produce plenty of vitamin D. An addition is needed. “Vitamin D is important for calcium intake, for instance,” Alex continues. Calcium is necessary for the production and maintenance of bones and teeth.

“It’s a major theme that’s often talked about, and that’s why we’re seeing it in more and more products. Mushrooms are the only natural source of vitamin D,” Roy adds. Globally, a shift can be seen. As a result of the economic development and the fact people spend more time indoors, the number of people with a vitamin D shortage is increasing globally.Besides, there’s increasing interest in functional foods.

Vitamin D life buoy for white mushrooms?
In recent months, the discussion regarding the pricing of white mushrooms in retail flared up in the national media. Due to pressure on the prices, the Dutch mushroom production is in danger of disappearing. Can the vitamin D enhancement change this?

“We’re considering this to be one of the great things we found in our mushrooms, and we can offer something wonderful to the market from a social point of view with it,” Roy says. “People have a global shortage of vitamin D. We can help find a solution this way,” he says.

It’s different for the fresh market, not least because that’s where the discussion is most intense. Alex thinks the price discussion won’t disappear. “The discussion has been held before, but we’ve now reached a point when something has to happen. Otherwise there won’t be any mushroom growers left in the Netherlands.” Due to the pressure on prices, a lot of mushroom growers were forced to quit in recent years. Despite the decreasing numbers of growers, total production remained at the same level. That scaling-up, however, has now reached its limit. The existing production companies are so large that if a grower collapses, a large part of the area is lost to the market. “It’s hard, because the Netherlands is a pioneer in the field of mushroom production,” Alex says. The European retailers have also become increasingly larger, so they can put more pressure on prices. “It’s a shame when the Netherlands has to lose out because of competition from Poland.”

“The positive thing about the vitamin D mushrooms, is that we have the knowledge,” Alex says about the positive developments on the market. “Because of that, there will always be demand for Dutch product.” Zooming out, he describes the total sector more positively. “The product group has grown in recent years. Chestnut mushrooms and exotic mushrooms are sold more often.” The market for white mushrooms also appears to be stabilising after a few years of decreasing. “We even see a slight plus,” Alex says, hopefully. “The biggest growers are the mixed packaging, chestnut mushrooms and shiitake.” Vitamin D could break the downward pricing spiral of the white mushrooms, he thinks. “It is an added value for retailers, which could be good for prices.”

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