Is jackfruit the new vegan superfood?
Most superfoods come in small packages (think of teff, goji berries and quinoa), but jackfruit is different. Imagine a spiky rugby ball that can weigh up to 25kg and you’ve got the latest vegan superfood. Jackfruit has been used as a meat alternative for hundreds of years in Asia, but in the West we are just starting to realise its potential.
A ripe jackfruit’s flavour is reminiscent of a childhood spent chewing Juicy Fruit – bubblegum-y and tropical, but it’s the young jackfruit that has excited those seeking meat alternatives. The unripe fruit has a vaguely tangy taste and when it’s cooked looks similar to pulled pork or shredded chicken.
Jackfruit is obviously having its moment in the sun. Instagram is full of pictures of the fruit masquerading as meat, there’s a food truck in LA that specialises in jackfruit tacos, it’s been proclaimed as a miracle food crop and even National Geographic has written an article about it.
However, the popularity of jackfruit as a meat substitute hints to a broader global trend. Earlier this year, Eric Schmidt, the executive director of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), listed vegan meat as the biggest trend in the tech industry (even more so than 3D printing or self-driving cars).
“There is clearly increasing consumer awareness about the environmental implications of meat production,” says Kelly Donati, a gastronomy lecturer at William Angliss Institute. “Meat alternatives are a great way to reduce consumption of animal-based products.”
For Donati, however, labelling any one item as a superfood is problematic.
“The idea of consuming particular ingredients because they are a ‘super food’ is a reductive way of looking at food,” she says. Her concern is that by chasing superfood trends, we risk overlooking the cultural and ecological systems from which the products or ingredients are derived. Donati has questions about superfoods that go beyond how they taste.
“How are the relationships of production and consumption connected, and what are the risks of changing these relationships through increased western demand for these products?” she asks.
“What ecological and economic pressures does this place on local environments where jackfruit is grown? What are the consequences of jackfruit becoming the new tofu? Will local people and markets be able to access this ingredient in the same way if it suddenly becomes more lucrative to export it overseas?”
“If we are to take up jackfruit consumption,” she says, “then I believe it’s important to understand more about its gastronomic qualities.”
And it’s worth considering the nutritional profile too, not just the epicurean aspect, says Dr Rebecca Reynolds, a lecturer and nutritionist at The University of New South Wales.
“I wouldn’t say jackfruit is the best food alternative for non-meat eaters,” she says.
“It’s like all fruit and vegetables, in that it provides lots of fibre and some micronutrients and phytochemical antioxidants. But it only provides calcium and iron at lower levels than animal foods and doesn’t provide much protein.”
While jackfruit can be eaten fresh, dried or roasted, and its seeds can be ground into flour, Dr Reynolds says it’s not the best meat replacement. “For vegans I’d suggest foods fortified with micronutrients such as soy/other milks and tofu, and higher protein and omega-3 fat-containing foods such as nuts, seeds and legumes,” she says.
So does the largest treeborne fruit in the world have an equally large future? Better keep an eye on the food trucks near you.
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