Fruit as meat? Boulder entrepreneur’s foray into jackfruit proving fruitful

Boulder Daily Camera

Shay Castle

Chances are, you don’t know jackfruit.

The giant, green fruit grows primarily in tropical regions of Asia, so it’s not a common sight in Colorado.

But the nation’s biggest peddler of the produce happens to be a Boulder business: The Jackfruit Company, founded by Boston transplant Annie Ryu.

We chatted via email with Ryu — busy visiting farmers in rural India — to learn more about the giant phenomenon:

First, I think it might be helpful to tell our readers: What is a jackfruit?

Jackfruit is an extremely high-yield crop which produces the largest tree-borne fruit in the world. A single jackfruit can grow to be 100 pounds.

Before it ripens and sugars develop — we call this young jackfruit — it has a mild taste and naturally meaty texture. When cooked, it resembles pulled pork.

Once jackfruit ripens, it becomes incredibly sweet and pungent. The flavor of ripe jackfruit is said to be the inspiration for Juicy Fruit gum.

Jackfruit trees grow in tropical locations around the world, but are native to southern India where we source the jackfruit for our products. Jackfruit trees in this region are incredibly low maintenance, which means our farmers don’t water them or use any soil amendments.

Because jackfruit is so prolific, much of the fruit actually goes to waste. A single tree can yield 2.5 to 3 tons of fruit per year.

How did you first come across jackfruit and start cooking with it?

The summer after my sophomore year at Harvard, I traveled to southern India with my brother to implement a maternal and child healthcare program we had developed.

I saw a pile of jackfruit on the side of the road for the first time and thought they were enormous green porcupines. It was the most delicious fruit I’d ever tasted. I took a 10-hour overnight bus to attend a jackfruit festival in Dharmasthala during my first weekend in India.

While I was staying with a farming family in rural southern India, the family prepared a home recipe — jackfruit burgers — and I learned that jackfruit was often used as a meat alternative in traditional cooking and meal preparation.

Why did you decide to start a jackfruit company?

I learned that 70 percent of all jackfruit in India goes to waste for lack of commercial supply chains. I wanted to create a pathway to turn jackfruit into income for farming families, while positively impacting the environment and human health.

When I first started the company, I was focused on bringing dried, ripe jackfruit to market. Then I realized the bigger opportunity to create a hearty, whole food meat alternative from young jackfruit to satisfy the needs of vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians.

What’s your distribution look like?

Locally you can find our products at Whole Foods, Sprouts, Lucky’s and Alfalfa’s. Nationally, you can find our products at Wegmans, Raley’s, Smith’s, Shop Rite, Fred Meyer, Ralph’s, divisions of Albertson’s-Safeway and Kroger, and many independent natural food stores.

What’s the growth of the business been like?

We originally launched into 180 stores across six regions with Whole Foods. We’ve since grown over tenfold, with placement in about 2,000 stores nationally as of November.

We’re also seeing great success on the food service side of the business, as restaurants and universities look for a healthy meat alternative to provide to their guests.