Retailers should have more solid, nutrition-based data with which to market mushrooms when a pair of professors at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, complete their research over the next two years.

Neal Hooker and his partner, John Stanton, both food marketing professors, are working under a $330,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty crop initiative grant to identify strategies to help retailers better promote, advertise and price mushrooms.

The pair wants to study “center-of-store strategies,” such as communication tactics, and implement them in the produce department, Hooker said.

The research will focus on how retailers can use the nutrition qualities of mushrooms to sell more.

When mushrooms pass through an ultraviolet light treatment, their vitamin D content is elevated to 100% of the daily recommended intake, Hooker said.

Since vitamin D is associated with calcium absorption in the body, a deficiency could lead to concerns over bone health or osteoporosis, he said.

There’s also emerging evidence of other potential benefits of mushrooms, such as promoting heart health and fighting cancer.

Gary Schroeder, president of Kennett Square, Pa.-based Oakshire Mushroom Farm, which does business as Dole Mushrooms, has a degree from the university’s food marketing program. He said he also is a principal investigator in the study.

Dole Mushrooms is a lead innovator when it comes to focusing on the relationship between mushrooms and vitamin D, Schroeder said.

“It was a natural fit that we would be the industry partner.”

There already have been some success in marketing fruits and vegetables based on their nutrient content, he said, citing blueberries and their antioxidant message as an example.

The study will include all produce, Schroeder said, “but we’re going to use mushrooms and vitamin D as our test case on how to get consumers to be more responsive and how to talk to consumers about the health benefits of produce and eating more produce.”

Researchers will study whether consumers realize the nutritional value of mushrooms and whether they will be willing to pay for that advantage, he said.

They’ll also look at how packaging, labeling and messaging resonate with consumers.

Researchers conducted their first focus groups in late 2011 to explore what consumers understand about vitamin D and whether they make the connection that mushrooms can be a good source of the vitamin, Hooker said.

There are positive indications that more consumers are gaining awareness of nutrition and health, he said.

They’re even getting blood tests to check for possible deficiencies of vitamin D and teaching themselves about how to increase their intake of the vitamin through diet or other means, he said.

“Our intent is to do more focus groups, then move to a quantitative phase of research exploring consumer understanding, response to messages and even optimal store placement and merchandising design,” Hooker said.

The researchers eventually will create a series of recommendations and provide a marketing kit that the industry can use, he said.

“There’s a lot of activity going on with this project that is going to benefit the mushroom industry and those people who market it,” Schroeder said.

“We’re going to have a lot of good data to employ to more successfully market the health benefits of mushrooms.”