The first time Annie Ryu had jackfruit as a meat substitute, she was in India and a farmer had prepared a jackfruit burger for her.
It wasn’t necessarily how the farmer or his family usually ate the massive tropical fruit. But, Ryu said, he had thought that since she was from the U.S., she might like something that looked like the food she was used to at home.
Ryu, who was traveling in the subcontinent with her brother, recalls she found herself blown away by the offering.
“What jackfruit has is that sinuous nature of muscle. And then, you're basically able to — with a blank slate on flavor — mimic all of these different foods” that come from animals, Ryu said.
The jackfruit burger set Ryu on a path to a new career in food. She’s now the CEO of two plant-based brands that put jackfruit in the center of the plate. The Jackfruit Company was founded in 2015 to present jackfruit-based main dishes. Ryu said this brand mainly targets vegetarians.
The other, Jack & Annie’s, uses jackfruit to make meat analogs including chicken-like nuggets, patties and tenders; sausages and meatballs. Launched in 2020, it targets omnivores who are interested in making plant-based choices. Today, Ryu said, Jack & Annie’s is in more than 6,000 points of distribution in the U.S. It received $23 million in a Series B funding round last year to help with its expansion.
Jack & Annie’s was developed to bring jackfruit to a wider consumer audience, Ryu said. Because jackfruit is naturally meat-like, it requires less work to turn it into a meat analog than other plant-based proteins, including pea or soy.
“We're able to prepare foods that are delicious and that have the taste, texture and eating experience of meat — but are also less processed than the competition,” Ryu said. It also has “a simpler ingredient deck because again, our starting material is similar to meat, just the way it grows.”
You don’t know jackfruit
Jackfruit isn’t exactly the kind of thing that comes to mind for most people in the U.S. when they think of fruit.
While it grows on trees in tropical climate regions, most of the fruit comes from the plant’s native India. The spiky green fruits can be huge, weighing up to 100 lbs.
When jackfruit is cultivated at an unripe stage — like it is for the products made by The Jackfruit Company and Jack & Annie’s — it isn’t sweet. It has a meaty texture and a fairly neutral taste. (It is sweet and fruity tasting when ripe, with a flavor many have said is similar to Juicy Fruit gum.)
Compared to other fruits, jackfruit is high in protein, with 3 grams in a cup. And because it is a fruit, it has a wealth of antioxidants. A cup of jackfruit has 18% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C and 10% of vitamin A.
But jackfruit doesn’t just have positive nutritional attributes. It’s also highly sustainable. It’s a fairly drought-resistant crop. And it’s naturally disease and pest resistant.
Health and sustainability benefits aside, jackfruit has traditionally been consumed in South India. Since many traditional Indian dishes are vegetarian, Ryu said the traditional use of jackfruit is as a substitute for meat in dishes like curries. Jack & Annie’s has taken it a step further.
“We've pioneered the product development, the R&D, for the fruit varietals but also for how to ... best make beef, pork, chicken, seafood,” Ryu said.
Making jackfruit more approachable
Ryu’s companies take a tropical fruit that is obscure to many people and turns it into plant-based food that is recognizable to any consumer in the U.S.
While jackfruit naturally has a meaty texture and neutral taste, Ryu said it’s still taken work to transform it into conventional food products. There are things food scientists and product formulators for Jack & Annie’s learned how to contend with. Since jackfruit is a fruit, Ryu said, it has more natural moisture than the often processed and extruded plant-based ingredients common in meat analogs.
On the other hand, she said, it’s easier for Jack & Annie’s to design products that aren’t too dry and don’t necessarily rely on other plant-based fats. Ryu added that because of the nature of jackfruit, no bitter blockers — a common flavor component for plant-based proteins that may have an unpalatable taste — are needed.
Ryu said she often hears reviews from consumers who think that Jack & Annie’s nuggets taste just like chicken. Getting shoppers to try jackfruit products so willingly was a major driver in creating the Jack & Annie’s brand.
“We've really provided foods that are so simple and convenient and easy to prepare,” Ryu said. “You don't need to know how to work with jackfruit to have an awesome experience. You just need to know how to throw chicken nuggets in the air fryer, throw sausages on the stovetop.”
Even though Jack & Annie’s doesn’t hide the fact that its main ingredient is jackfruit, the tropical fruit is not necessarily front and center on the branding. Ryu said that’s by design.
Jack & Annie’s is making jackfruit accessible to the ordinary consumer. Instead of running the risk of confusing potential shoppers by telling them that the plant-based analogs are made of an exotic fruit, Jack & Annie’s presents the plant-based meat products first — chicken analogs, meatballs or sausage. The other information is readily available with a deeper look.
“It's really the sequence of communication that changed,” she said.
A strong supply chain
While CPG makers have struggled this year with inflation and shortages that increase prices or make products scarce, Ryu said that has not been as much of an issue for Jack & Annie’s.
A big reason why is the company's unique supply chain.
Ryu said the company has a subsidiary that is a direct link to more than 1,500 family farmers in India. They supply all of the company’s jackfruit. This arrangement, she said, helps the farmers earn a chunk of their annual family income — about 10% to 40% based on what they harvest — for cultivating a crop that already grew in their yards. About 70% of jackfruits previously went unused, Ryu found, so this arrangement provides an incentive for farmers to work with the crop.
The biggest supply chain challenges have actually been in the U.S., Ryu said. Ingredients makers, trucking and packaging issues have all done more to drag on the company’s progress than getting jackfruit from India.
Jack & Annie’s is still growing in the current economy, with distribution points more than doubling in the last year, Ryu said. A big part of that is the brand’s value proposition, she said. It stands in sharp contrast to other plant-based meat companies that have reported a huge slowdown in sales growth.
“We've been delivering a huge needed point of difference in this space,” she said. “Apart from the inflation, one of the things that has been driving some concern in the [plant-based] space is people feeling like, ‘Are these foods really better for me? What is it really made of?’ And that's a call that jackfruit and Jack & Annie’s answers.”