Feb 14, 2023 - Economy

"The Last of Us" won't have the last word on mushroom appeal

Mushroom headed zombie in The Last of Us

Photo: Courtesy of Liane Hentscher/HBO

Most industries welcome product placement on TV shows. But what if your product is mushrooms — and they're seen atop zombie heads, or threaded through their decomposing bodies, during the apocalypse? Not so appetizing.

What's happening: The mushroom industry is so far sanguine about "The Last of Us," the apocalyptic HBO series in which a fungus infects the world, turning people into mushroom zombies.

What they're saying: Mushrooms are increasingly popular — named "ingredient of the year" in a New York Times article in 2022, notes Mushroom Council spokesperson Eric Davis.

  • "So it’s no surprise to now see them on new television programs. We are confident that people will continue to load their plates with delicious, nutritious and fresh mushrooms — maybe even while they catch the latest episode.”
  • The zombie heads in "The Last of Us" look a lot like "delicious" chicken of the woods mushrooms, and "you can never turn me off those," said Jennifer Knox, a poet in Iowa, who is curating a public art project about mushrooms called Mycyowa.

The other side: "How the f**k am I supposed to eat mushrooms now after watching 'The Last of Us' because everyone's head becomes a f**king mushroom," comedian Matt Rogers said on the popular comedy podcast "Las Culturistas," in a recurring segment called "I don't think so, honey."

  • On Twitter, views were mixed after Axios asked what the show was doing to mushroom cravings.
  • "Mushrooms are still both amazing and terrifying. I will continue to eat them, and respect them as our true inevitable overlords. (In a few million years)," reads one tweet.

By the numbers: Inflation may actually be more problematic than zombies for mushroom sales in the U.S.

  • Folks are buying less fresh produce, and more frozen to deal with rising prices. U.S. consumers bought $1.3 billion worth of fresh mushrooms last year, down 4% from 2021 (though up from 2019), per a report from the Mushroom Council.

Zoom out: Chicken of the woods aside, the mushrooms on "The Last of Us" don't resemble what most folks buy at the store — so the impact on mushroom sales will likely be minimal, said Angela Lee, a marketing professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

  • It might even mean an increase in sales — because it will put mushrooms on top of consumers' minds when they're thinking "what should I make?"

The bottom line: The human fascination with fungus goes back more than a century. And viewers of the show so far appear more concerned about the prospect of a fungi-fueled pandemic than their appetite for shitakes, etc.

  • Mycologists told Slate we don't need to worry. Not yet anyway.

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