Vegan company finds fruitful opportunity for meat alternative

by Rebekah Schouten
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Upton's Naturals offers seasoned, ready-to-eat jackfruit in four varieties: Bar-B-Que, Chili Lime Carnitas, Thai Curry, and Original.

CHICAGO — The secret to a successful meat alternative recipe is all about location, at least when it comes to Upton’s Naturals jackfruit. The vegan company’s jackfruit is harvested, seasoned and packaged in Thailand where it grows. Daniel Staackmann, founder and president of the company, and Nicole Sopko, vice-president, even formulate their jackfruit recipes in the country.

“We actually travel to Thailand to develop the recipes there with ingredients that are available in Thailand,” Ms. Sopko said. “Our products are beginning to end in Thailand right where they’re grown.”

Upton’s Naturals jackfruit products are a shelf-stable meat alternative made from Thailand’s young jackfruit, which offer a texture likened to pulled pork. One of the company’s newest jackfruit flavors is even inspired by its native country.

“We’re happy to have one of our products be a tribute to where it’s coming from by introducing the Thai Curry jackfruit,” Ms. Sopko said.

Upton’s Naturals also recently added an original variety to its lineup, which Mr. Staackmann called “straight jackfruit as nature intended.” The new Original and Thai Curry varieties join the company’s existing Bar-B-Que and Chili Lime Carnitas jackfruit flavors.

Daniel Staackman and Nicole Sopko first tried jackfruit at a Nepalese restaurant.

Mr. Staackmann said he and Ms. Sopko decided to add jackfruit to the Upton’s Naturals lineup after reading about the fruit as a meat alternative on-line then trying it for themselves at a Nepalese restaurant.

“From there, we did the same thing everyone on-line was doing,” Mr. Staackmann said. “We bought cans of jackfruit from the Asian specialty grocery and broke out the slow cooker and hours later, we had a finished product. We just thought that we would prefer to just have something ready to go right off the shelf, so other people must as well.”

However, the canned jackfruit contained preservatives, which didn’t fit into Upton’s Naturals’ clean label mentality. The company sought a place in the natural and organic market, and stores like Whole Foods will not allow such preservatives in any products they sell.

Canned jackfruit often contains preservatives to extend the fruit's shelf life, which is naturally only a day or two.

But working without preservatives posed a problem. Because young jackfruit oxidizes quickly after being cut, it must be eaten within a day or two. So Upton’s turned to retort packaging, which allows the sterile packaging of ready-to-eat foods.

“Our product was the first one in the U.S. market that was jackfruit without preservatives,” Ms. Sopko said. “We found a great partner in Thailand and they processed the jackfruit to our specifications and seasoned it for our recipes. Then it’s retort packaged so it can be imported to the United States without having to freeze it or keep it in refrigerated containers, which are not environmentally friendly. Our motivation was creating something for the natural market that had ingredients we felt good about.”

That idea is a theme in all of Upton’s Naturals products, which include jackfruit as well as seitan, a vegan meat alternative made from cooked wheat gluten.

Upton's Naturals also offers seitan in flavors like chorizo and bacon.

“It’s about simplicity in food,” Mr. Staackmann said. “If it doesn’t need to be in there, why is it? With the seitan and everything else we do, you’ll find all easily recognizable ingredients. We don’t add any quote-unquote natural flavors or yeast extract or any of that nonsense. It’s either wheat, water and spices or jackfruit and spices.”

While Upton’s Naturals recipes are original, Ms. Sopko said they are simply offering foods that have existed for ages and formulated for the Western palate.

“Seitan has been around for thousands of years,” she said. “Jackfruit has been eaten as a meat alternative for hundreds or thousands of years. We didn’t invent this. We’re just making things that have already been around but we’re flavoring them differently and using them differently. They have simple ingredients, they’re pretty readily available, and we just wanted to bring those to a wider market.”

Educating the wider market about jackfruit is the focus of Upton’s Naturals business going forward, Ms. Sopko said. Any plans for new flavors or products have been pushed to the backburner.

Upton's Naturals plans to spend time educating the public about using jackfruit as a meat alternative, like in these Chili Lime Carnitas tacos.

“A lot of our attention now is going to be dedicated to expanding knowledge about jackfruit and, in that process, we may end up developing some new flavors or launching something else,” she said. “There are still a lot of people and retailers who are unfamiliar with jackfruit as a meat alternative. But I think that, as people lean toward incorporating more meat alternatives into their diets, they’ll see that jackfruit is a great and obvious alternative. It’s readily available and underutilized. I think it will be a great addition to the standard American diet.”

If jackfruit is embraced the way Upton’s Naturals hopes it will be, Mr. Staackmann said they’ll be ready.

“If it turns out that America loves jackfruit and they want 20 different flavors, we’ll be happy to give it to them,” he said.
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