A Jack(fruit) Of All Trades?

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Though the delights of another “Veganuary” may be behind us, we still potentially have a lot to learn from the pulled pork substitutes sitting on supermarket shelves right now – or rather, the tropical fruit which forms the primary ingredient of the said vegetarian meals.

Its status as the saviour of vegetarians everywhere aside, the jackfruit’s nutritional value could make it become a staple food not just for its original cultivators in India and Southeast Asia, but for impoverished peoples in the wider world as a whole.

Credit: Augustus Binu [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
The jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, producing massive, green, oblong fruits with a bumpy, fleshy exterior. On the inside, jackfruit contains many fleshy pale-yellow, edible petals that when fully ripened have an intense sweet taste akin to a mix of pineapples, mangoes and bananas. As such, fully matured jackfruits are extensively used in various Southern Asian cuisines to make custards and cakes or mixed with other ingredients and shaved ice to form a smoothie-like dessert.

Unripe jackfruits also hold culinary uses due to having a more neutral, potato-like flavour. They work well in savoury dishes (primarily curries). The growing prominence of jackfruits in the West is due partly to their alternative use as a vegetarian staple. Unripe fruits soak up flavours well and have a stringy, “meat-like” texture when cooked. Consequently, the petals can be mixed with other flavourings and prepared as a meat substitute. The seeds also are themselves extremely nutritious and quite commonly used in Indian vegetable curries in place of lentils. When roasted, they can also serve as a commercial commodity due to their chocolate-like aroma.

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In recent years, it’s become recognised that jackfruit’s properties have implications potentially far beyond its current usage as a “trendy” meat substitute. Its health and nutritional value even as raw, freshly picked produce speaks for itself – the flesh is starchy and fibrous and a source of dietary fibre, aiding digestion and constipation issues. The benefits don’t stop there:

  • Jackfruit is high in complex carbs which can provide a boost of energy, without throwing your blood sugar levels out of balance. Clinical trials have found that raw jackfruit has a lower glycemic load than wheat or rice. Consequently, the pancreas doesn’t need to release as much insulin to reduce glucose levels, reducing the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
  • It’s unique in that it provides more than 3 grams of protein per cup, compared to only 0–1 grams for other fruits like mango.
  • Jackfruit has high levels of calcium, strengthening and promoting healthy bones. Added stores of magnesium and potassium also help to absorb and retain calcium, respectively.
  • Potassium additionally helps to regulate blood pressure, reducing the risk of strokes and heart attacks.
  • Moderate levels of Vitamin C, an antioxidant which helps the body fight free radicals, aids the body’s immune system.
  • Early research is being performed into jackfruit’s anti-cancer properties. Nutrients like lignans have anti-oestrogenic properties that may play a part in preventing hormone-based cancers. Saponins are also contained in jackfruit – they directly bind to and kill cancerous cells, as well as stimulating the immune system’s white blood cells into action to kill other harmful cells.
Credit: Mullookkaaran [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.
Shyamala Reddy, a biotechnology researcher at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, has said of the jackfruit that:

It can provide so many nutrients and calories […] if you eat just 10-12 bulbs of this fruit, you don’t need [to eat]for another 12 hours.

In recent years this has come to have huge implications regarding its potential role as a major source of calories and carbs for people in developing countries. One mature jackfruit tree can produce about 100-200 fruits (each 50kg) in a year, equating to around 3 tonnes. A wholesome food source which could potentially nourish thousands of people while simultaneously providing a stable income for farmers. In an interview with The Guardian, Danielle Nierenberg, President of Food Tank (an NGO dedicated to sustainable food production) stated:

It [jackfruit]is easy to grow. It survives pests and diseases and high temperatures. It is drought-resistant… It achieves what farmers need in food production when facing a lot of challenges under climate change.

It’s clear that the jackfruit could play a potential part of the solution for tropical countries facing problems with food security. Jackfruit trees can essentially grow anywhere on Earth that has a tropical or near-tropical climate. In addition, they’re far more efficient as a global food source compared to the intensive land and water resources necessary for livestock.

The global need for sustainable food production and supply has become much more apparent in the 21st century. It’s become increasingly essential to maintain local political stability, which decreases the risk of armed insurrection or mass migration to neighbouring countries, in turn improving chances for peace and stability in the surrounding region. The growing importance of food security for humanity as a whole was highlighted by the director of the UN World Food Programme, David Beasley’s attendance for the first time at the Munich Security Conference held earlier this year, where world leaders, diplomats and other senior figures engage in intensive debate on current and future security challenges facing our planet. Interviewed by the BBC, Mr Beasley stated that: ‘no food security essentially equates to no security of any kind’ in nations where the population is starving. He also highlighted the importance of meeting people’s basic needs so they don’t turn to extremism or migrate to (and put pressure on) other countries. In the same vein he called for an end to the wars currently being fought in the Middle East, specifically bringing up the crisis in Yemen with the worst famine in the world in over 100 years.

With its huge size, nutrient density, and pleasant taste, the jackfruit is one of the most promising solutions for sustainably feeding the world and guaranteeing poorer nations’ food security. For now at least, as more people move away from animal products across the globe, jackfruit and its “meaty” texture provides a more sustainable (and often less processed) option for plant-based meat alternatives like Quorn. While import costs from the tropics mean that jackfruit is unlikely to become a staple food here, it can still serve as an occasional ingredient for creative, healthy meals — we might even see it replace our need to expensively rear livestock for slaughter.

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Sub-editor 2019/20. Neuroscience student within the School of BioSciences (2017-present) with a particular interest in concepts where innovation can translate science-fiction to science-reality

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