Food manufacturers have toiled for years on formulating meat substiutes that have the proper taste, texture and mouthfeel. But an up-and-coming option quite literally grows on trees.
Jackfruit is the world's largest tree-borne fruit, capable of reaching sizes of more than 80 pounds, growing both on branches and the trunks of trees native to South and East Asia. It's botanically related to figs, mulberries and breadfruit.
It also has a dual identity. If it’s left to ripen, it becomes amazingly fruity and has been rumored to be the inspiration for the flavor of Juicy Fruit gum. If it’s unripened, its flesh is firm, pale and fibrous, and can have the "bite" and mouthfeel of meat. After proper preparation, it can look like pulled pork and can take on the flavor of whatever it's cooked with.
Both variations are gaining traction with U.S. consumers and are appearing in grocery stores nationwide. The ripe variation is appearing in produce departments with other tropical fruits. Manufacturers like The Jackfruit Company are working with the unripe variety to consumers nationwide as a new meat substitute.
“We love that we’re gluten-free. We love that jackfruit is naturally soy-free. We have a different value proposition,” Alisha Stagg, brand director for The Jackfruit Company, told Food Dive.
A new old meat substitute
Jackfruit grows in many places throughout the southern hemisphere, and is extremely prolific in India. In the subcontinent, where many people don’t eat much meat, “it's been consumed as a meat alternative for thousands of years,” Stagg said.
The Jackfruit Company, based in Colorado, is bringing some of the Indian product — a majority of which is not used — to American consumers. The company does the work of preparing unripe jackfruit to be a meat substitute, and sells its four varieties — BBQ, Tex-Mex, teriyaki and curry — in about 2,200 stores nationwide, according to Senior Vice President of Sales Beata Pabian.
“We added 200 stores this month,” Pabian told Food Dive. “Over the past couple of months the food service market, including both restaurants and universities, have been getting increasingly more enthusiastic about the product.”
The Jackfruit Company’s products are largely ready-to-eat. With minimal processing, high nutritional values and grounding in sustainability, the product fits in with many of today’s hottest food trends.
“We see ourselves in that minimally processed, whole food space,” Stagg said.
The company also sells a “naked” jackfruit product to foodservice entities. Stagg said that she loves discovering how chefs and large-scale food service companies are using the products. She has seen jackfruit in many different preparations, from trendy restaurant sliders to cheesy empanadas in university dining halls.
Jack of all nutrition?
As an all-natural fruit, jackfruit has many health benefits.
Its edible bulbs are made up of simple sugars such as fructose and sucrose that can replenish energy and quickly revitalize the body. The fruit is rich in dietary fiber, making it a good natural laxative. It also contains small but significant amounts of vitamin A, and is an excellent source of vitamin C, providing about 23% of a person's recommended dietary allowance per 100 grams of fruit.
Jackfruit is uncommonly rich in the B-complex group of vitamins and is also a good source of potassium, magnesium, manganese and iron. It also contains no cholesterol and has virtually no fat content — both nutritional pitfalls in all land-sourced meat and some sea foods.
However, Stagg said, it isn’t a good source of protein.
“It is a little bit of a dynamic tension around people automatically assuming that meat alternatives are protein alternatives. And for us, it’s more about the center-of-plate. It’s more about a hearty, fulfilling meal experience.”
Stagg said that company founder Annie Ryu has always been interested in bringing more research about jackfruit and its benefits to the forefront of food science.
“We want to be able to talk about all of the benefits of jackfruit,” she said. “...There’s an opportunity to connect with us. You can read a gazillion articles on leafy greens and cancer, and leafy greens and this. There’s still an opportunity to learn some more about jackfruit.”
Stagg said she doesn’t see the fruit’s popularity slowing down anytime soon. The Jackfruit Company’s products have quickly spread to other regions of the country and more mainstream stores. The fruit itself may start to be cultivated more often in the United States.
And the supply just keeps on coming. Stagg said that more than half of India’s jackfruit goes to waste. By extending the fruit’s supply chain, it helps with sustainability.
“The tree is so productive,” she said. “If there are no supply chains to bring it to market and to process it as a value-added product, it goes to waste. ...That’s the impact she [Ryu] has had and the manner in which it reduces waste and provides income.”