Jackfruit leads the cash in on hunger for vegan alternatives

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Jackfruit leads the cash in on hunger for vegan alternatives

The jackfruit is an extraordinary sight. The largest tree-borne fruit in the world, it is covered in spikes and can weigh up to 50kg. It is the smell however that is its hallmark - a pungent odour similar to rotting onions. Just a few years ago, it was usually found growing by the side of Indian roads, where it was considered to be a giant weed, and it was little known outside of south east Asia.

Cutting into the fruit reveals a coating of thick, sticky gum that stains whatever tool is used to access the fleshy bulbs inside. This, and its size, makes it difficult to harvest. “Jackfruit is not suited to automated or mechanical processing infrastructure due to their size, so cleaning, packing and sorting will need to be done by hand," says Agrifutures Australia, an agricultural research group.

But despite these drawbacks, the jackfruit is enjoying its day in the sun. Demand has surged thanks to its similarity in texture to pulled pork. And at a time when more and more people in the West are embracing vegan diets, growers of the fruit are cashing in.

And at a time when more and more people in the West are embracing vegan diets, growers of jackfruit are cashing in.

Meat off the menu

An increasing number of people are going meat-free - for health reasons, over concerns for animal welfare, or because of the environmental impact of meat production. Market research company Statista says meat "is one of the most resource-guzzling categories of agriculture, taking up huge amounts of land, water and feed, in addition to producing approximately 14.5% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions".
 

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Consequently, consumer attitudes are changing - there has been a rise in the number of vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians, with more people now opting for meat-free days. The market for plant-based protein, which includes lentils, nuts and quinoa, is set to rise from $10.5 billion in 2017 to $16.3 billion in 2025, Statista predicts.

The market for plant-based protein, which includes lentils, nuts and quinoa, is set to rise from $10.5 billion in 2017 to $16.3 billion in 2025, Statista predicts.

Fertile environment

All of this creates a fertile environment for jackfruit sales to soar, although from a low base. India is set to export 800 tonnes of the fruit this year, up from almost nothing five years ago, to satisfy demand from consumers in Europe, the UK and the USA. Other top exporters include Colombia, Malaysia, Uganda, Jamaica, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Kenya.

However, compared to local consumption, this is a drop in the ocean - average output of jackfruit stood at approximately 1.8 million tonnes in India from 2015 to 2017, one million tonnes in Bangladesh and around 700, 000 tonnes in Indonesia. "In all countries, jackfruit production has seen fast growth in response to increasing domestic demand," according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation.

So while fashionable restaurants and concerned consumers in industrialised nations are discovering the fruit, jackfruit could have a much larger role to play in the global food chain than providing an exotic alternative at hipster street food joints.

The fruit's versatility could be a real boon for a world where many people still don't have enough to eat – around 124 million people suffered from acute hunger in 2018, according to the Global Hunger Index.

The fruit's versatility could be a real boon for a world where many people still don't have enough to eat – around 124 million people suffered from acute hunger in 2018. A single jackfruit can feed a whole family for a couple of days.

A single jackfruit can feed a whole family for a couple of days, not just because it is so big but also because of its versatility – it can be prepared in a variety of ways to make both sweet and savoury dishes, from Jackfruit pulled pork sandwiches to jackfruit ice-cream, cookies and ripe jackfruit cake. The crop, which grows on trees that reach up to 20 metres high and can produce hundreds of fruits a year when mature, is an everyday food in southeast Asia. “It can be eaten as a fruit when it is ripe. It can also be served as curry, juice, cream, and cakes," says the World Atlas.

The flesh of the jackfruit is a good source of plant-based protein and the seeds are edible, with a sweet, milky taste. They can be made into flour, while unripe jackfruit is used in Indian, Sri Lankan, Cambodian, and Thai cuisine - its bland taste and fibrous texture making it an ideal meat substitute that takes on the flavours with which it is cooked.

The fruit is also easy to grow, requires relatively little water and is pretty robust, being resistant to pests and diseases, according to one of the fruit's main evangelists, Indian jackfruit farmer and farming magazine editor Shree Padre, in an interview with farming website Down To Earth.

Studies show that the yields of key crops, such as wheat, rice and maize, will be hit by climate change, so jackfruit could become an increasingly important foodstuff in future. And rather than compete with other crops, it can help them – jackfruit is often planted with other fruit crops, with its size and resilience to wind making it a useful windbreak for more vulnerable exotic tropical fruits.

Studies show that the yields of key crops, such as wheat, rice and maize, will be hit by climate change, so jackfruit could become an increasingly important foodstuff in future.

But challenges exist

While a number of Asian countries, including Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh and Indonesia are farming jackfruit systematically, some 60-70% of India's crop currently goes to waste, so it has a big opportunity to benefit from the newfound enthusiasm for jackfruit if it creates a proper value chain.

However, farming is not straightforward. To start with, any concerted push to commercialise production would come up against a delay between planting and the first crop of around three years, by which time another meat-free superstar may be in vogue. However, given the popularity of the crop in Asia, and the need to feed a growing population, this seems unlikely to derail growth prospects.

While it is relatively easy to grow, once the trees reach maturity, jackfruit is difficult to harvest, cut and peel, because of its size and the sticky nature of its flesh. It has to be picked, cleaned and packed by hand and its sheer size and weight makes transportation costly and complex. The fruit also perishes quite quickly if left unprocessed. To minimise wastage and to create a viable value chain, says Padre, it must be properly processed. “There are three mantras—RTC (ready to cook), RTE (ready to eat) and value-addition. There is a huge, untapped potential."


Healthy prospects

Jackfruit has entered the public consciousness in the West thanks to the rise in demand for tasty alternatives to meat. It may appear to be the new avocado or quinoa, but in a number of Asian countries, it is not a fad but a crucial part of the local diet. In Bangladesh, it is even the national fruit.

Jackfruit has entered the public consciousness in the West thanks to the rise in demand for tasty alternatives to meat.

Jackfruit can provide several different value-added products to allow "better utilisation of the commercial jackfruit crop", says Agrifutures. Currently jackfruit that is not sold is destroyed rather than further processed, but it can be canned, dried or cooled to preserve it, increasing returns and consumer choice. Indian company Artocarpus, trading under the name Hebon, offers a range of products including noodles, pasta, coffee, flour and pulp, for example.

And if the sector does take off, it could be a boon for farmers. When quinoa became the fashionable food in the West, it provided a boost to Peruvian farmers in the Andes as "surging prices helped lift ... household expenditure by 46% between 2004 and 2013", the Economist reported.

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