Sunday, February 5, 2023

How Jack & Annies Turned a Tropical Fruit Into a Sustainable Meat Superstar

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Jackfruit is an unlikely contender in the crowded vegan meat category. But with help from leading jackfruit brand Jack & Annies, the tropical fruit has become a superstar in its own right.

Annie Ryu, founder of Jack & Annies, had the idea to bring jackfruit products to market more than a decade ago following a trip to India where the fruit grows while she was a medical student at Harvard.

She started first in 2015 with the launch of The Jackfruit Co., which focused mainly on ready-to-cook shredded jackfruit products.

In 2020, Ryu launched Jack & Annie’s, which includes ten frozen prepared items including crumbles, meatballs, sausages, and nuggets. In December 2021, Jack & Annies raised $23 million in a Series B funding round to help accelerate the growth of its range of products.

Annie Ryu, founder Jack & Annie's
Annie Ryu, founder Jack & Annie’s | Courtesy

There are other brands in the space including Chicago-based Upton Naturals and Canada’s The Very Good Butchers, both of which sell shredded jackfruit. Karana, a Singapore-based startup, raised $1.7 million in 2020 to develop vegan jackfruit pork.

But Jack & Annie’s is the category leader — not just for jackfruit, but also for frozen foods. In 2021, it was the third-largest frozen food brand in the plant-based category and number one in nuggets for the 12 weeks ending October 3.

What is jackfruit?

The jackfruit is hard to miss. The tropical fruit native to India and other tropical climates can grow to more than 100 pounds. The “meaty” part of the fruit is encased in its lime green spiky peel. When its unripe flesh is cooked and seasoned, it can mimic the taste and texture of a number of meats including pulled pork, chicken, beef, and even seafood.

Since jackfruit naturally has a neutral flavor, it’s incredibly versatile. Like tofu, it can soak up the flavor of whatever spices or seasoning it’s cooked with. Ryu says in some more rural areas where jackfruit grows, it is a staple food — similar to rice. “The first time I was served jackfruit, a farmer made a jackfruit burger for me – and I was completely stunned by how it delivered on the texture of meat,” Ryu told Ethos via email. 

Farmers and Ryu weigh a giant jackfruit
Farmers and Ryu weigh a giant jackfruit | Courtesy

Ryu says jackfruit has been enjoyed as a meat alternative in India for hundreds if not thousands of years. In some regions of India, it is celebrated as a wedding food, where it is served alongside the animal meat version of each dish.

Despite the category leaders like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, global sales of jackfruit products generated nearly $300 million last year. That number should tip toward $400 million by 2029, according to recent sales projections from Credence Research.

We caught up with Ryu to learn more about jackfruit, Jack & Annie’s, and why this unlikely fruit has become so critical for the plant-based category.

Ethos: Can you talk about how jackfruit is sustainably and ethically harvested/sourced?

AR: Jackfruit trees can produce up to 200 jackfruit per year, weighing up to 100 pounds each, and yet 70 percent of the jackfruit supply historically goes unused due to lack of connection to a market.

Upon my many travels to India, I learned about this magical fruit and became determined to convert this underutilized crop into delicious foods that could become a substantial source of income for farmers in India, while offering sustainable meat alternatives for consumers in the U.S.

In fact, since launching the company 11 years ago, we now work with 1,700 farming families who are now making anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of their income thanks to jackfruit. We’re proud to be big supporters of small farmers, over half of our farmers have five acres or less. (Five acres is roughly the size of a New York City block.)

As perennial crops, jackfruit trees are not required to be planted every year. Jackfruit is the highest-yielding tree crop in the world, remarkably without any inputs: it doesn’t require herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. Because jackfruit trees are resistant to drought, heat, and pests; provide shade to other crops; and maintain nutrients in the soil; they’re better for the environment and easy to grow in our changing climate. 

Ethos: How did you decide jackfruit could be the center of so many products? 

AR: Jackfruit has been enjoyed as an alternative to meat in India for hundreds if not thousands of years because its texture is more similar to meat than any other plant’s.

Looking at the landscape of plant-based meat in the U.S., I saw a critical need for meat alternatives that were not only nearly identical to meat in texture and flavor, but also minimally processed, with key nutritional benefits vs meat, and composed first and foremost from a plant. All of this is actually possible with jackfruit, which absorbs the flavors of whatever seasonings and sauces it’s prepared with.

jackfruit nuggets
Jack & Annie’s use jackfruit as the base of all its products | Courtesy

Our customers and consumers love the taste of our foods – they taste and smell as delicious, real food should – and regularly tell us that they, their partners, and their kids, prefer our foods to the (animal) meats they’re replacing. Our foods, with jackfruit at the center, deliver on the benefits of plants nutritionally as well: jackfruit is naturally high in fiber and minerals, contains protein, is free of fat, and low in calories, and our foods are a good or excellent source of fiber and protein, and lower in fat and calories vs the comparable meat. 

Ethos: Does jackfruit offer any benefits over other plant-based meats? How do the Jack & Annie’s products compare to similar processed vegan foods?

AR: Historically, the challenge with plant-based meat and meat alternatives is that the food is either a whole plant but not very meaty (like a black bean burger) or is very similar to meat in aspects of taste and texture, but distant from a whole plant. Foods made first and foremost from jackfruit offer the best of both worlds: a food with the convincing taste and texture of meat, also made primarily from this amazingly meaty plant.

Jackfruit is naturally free of fat and very low in calories, so while we do introduce some plant fats in order to deliver on the experience of meat, we’re able to use less fat because jackfruit’s naturally high-water content delivers on the moistness of meat. Whenever our culinary and R&D team is working to prepare and develop a new food, we keep a close eye to ensuring we’re putting a product on shelves that we’re proud of for taste, simplicity, and nutritional benefit. 

Ethos: How do you see jackfruit playing part in the future of the food system?

AR: The future we’re working to create is a future where jackfruit, one of the most sustainable foods, is a major part of global food consumption. Because of how dietary risk factors contribute to death and disease, for the foreseeable future we will continue to be focused on eating healthier, and as time goes on, more and more consumers will read ingredient labels and nutritional panels, and want to understand how their foods were made or grown.

Tasting fresh jackfruit
Tasting fresh jackfruit | Courtesy

Second, because of the ever-worsening impacts of climate change, the biggest problem of our time, there’s a powerful need for plant-based meat to become a much greater proportion of total meat consumption. Jackfruit, with its tremendous benefits for farmers, consumers, and the planet, can and should be part of the global solution to these problems. Jackfruit makes it possible to have meat alternatives that are virtually identical to meat in taste and texture, but also deliver the benefits of plants nutritionally, with a great positive impact for the environment. We’ve pioneered the supply chain and R&D to unlock jackfruit’s potential to replace animal meats and are committed to being a core solution in the future of food. 

We are in the process of publishing our first impact report and recently completed our first life-cycle analysis. The preliminary results indicate that 28,000 Metric tons of CO2 are sequestered each year by the jackfruit trees we harvest. That’s the energy equivalent to charging 3.4 billion cell phones, or roughly half of all cell phones in the world!

Ethos: What was the original product formulation process like for Jack & Annie’s products?

AR: Jack & Annie’s stands for delicious, real food from a real plant, and focuses on making jackfruit accessible for flexitarians and meat eaters. For this reason, we started off with food types that are familiar and widely consumed across ages and across dayparts, like chicken nuggets and breakfast sausages. From there we compared the animal meat version to jackfruit, and supplemented jackfruit as needed with seasonings, plant fat, and some additional plant protein.

jackfruit
Ryu with farmers and a small jackfruit | Courtesy

We pioneered the systems and technology to harvest and prepare jackfruit at commercial scale, so we’re able to leverage jackfruit’s naturally meaty nature in our foods and will be able to do so as our foods become increasingly available in grocery stores and restaurants around the world. With developing Jack & Annie’s foods, we focus on taste, texture, simplicity, and nutritional benefit, with jackfruit always our primary ingredient: the result is great-tasting foods you can feel good about eating.

Ethos: What’s in the works?

AR: We are very excited about a number of new items we have in the works.  We recently launched crispy jack patties, gluten-free jack tenders and buffalo jack patties. We are very excited about some of the restaurant partnerships we are developing with launches planned in 2023!

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