Upton’s Naturals enters plant-based jerky market with novel wheat protein-based bites

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

© Upton's Naturals
© Upton's Naturals

Related tags plant-based vegan Wheat protein Jackfruit healthy snacking

Plant-based brand Upton's Naturals has launched bite-size jerky pieces made from wheat protein. We caught up with its CEO to find out more about the clean label formulation process.

Although vegan jerky can be made from several plant bases such as soy, coconut or jackfruit, wheat was the obvious choice for Upton’s Naturals, which has worked with the ingredient for 14 years, said founder Dan Staackmann.

“Frankly, we aren’t fans of any fruit-based jerky we’ve tried, and the alternatives right now are all soy-based. Creating our line of jerky from wheat protein was the way to go for us, and it’s unique in the plant-based jerky category.”

The Jerky Bites contain between 8 and 10 g of protein per serving and have a similar texture and chew to traditional beef jerky, the company said.

Wheat protein

Wheat protein is the same ingredient used to make seitan but the company processes it differently in order to replicate the texture of dried beef jerky.­ While seitan is kneaded, cooked and then cut into its final format, Upton’s Naturals extrudes, dehydrates, and seasons the wheat protein before dehydrating it a second time for the jerky.

The products are available in four flavors: smoky original; tarragon, ginger & lime; tamarind pepperoni; and pineapple & pink peppercorn, and the company was keen to stress they are flavored with herbs, spices and fruits, rather than what Staackmaan referred to as ‘natural’ flavors.

“We don’t use flavors because we don’t find them necessary,”​ said Staackmann. “Additionally, many ‘natural’ flavors are not vegan. For instance, ‘natural’ raspberry flavor often contains Castoreum, which comes from a beaver's castor gland. Hence the finger-quotes around ‘natural’! Sure, beaver glands are natural, but that raspberry flavor is far from it,” ​he told FoodNavigator-USA.

One of the biggest formulation challenges was finding a way to extend the shelf life without using added preservatives. It spent one year testing different levels of sugar, water and acid before finding the right combination for moisture control, Staackmann explained. The jerky pieces are also packed with a food-safe oxygen absorber containing iron, which acts as an antioxidant. 

Jackfruit protein pairing

Upton Naturals has made a name for itself in the meat alternative category and its products are available in more than 6,000 US retailers and sold in 15 countries around the world. In addition to seitan, it is known for its range of flavored jackfruit and shelf-stable meal kits that contain tofu

High-fiber jackfruit, which is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, provides vegetarian and vegan food brands with a good texture to rival meat but it does not contain significant amounts of protein. For Staackmann, however, this does not detract from its nutritional appeal.

“Jackfruit is an ingredient, not a complete meal. If someone is concerned about consuming enough protein, they normally pair our jackfruit with quinoa, beans, or another whole-food protein.

“Truthfully, many consumers appreciate that jackfruit is low in calories, high in fiber, and contains zero fat and cholesterol,” ​he added.

Although Upton’s Naturals jackfruit range is technically shelf-stable, it advises retailers to merchandise the products in the refrigerated section, which helps consumers locate them.

“We’ve noticed that most consumers look to the refrigerator for meat alternatives, even more than the freezer, but don’t often look for them in center store,” ​he said.

The company, a founding board member of the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), recently celebrated a win for the plant-based sector when the state of Mississippi, which decided to allow ‘meaty’ terms on plant-based products as long as brands use appropriate qualifiers such as ‘meat-free,’ ‘meatless,’ ‘plant-based,’ ‘vegetarian,’ or ‘vegan', following a lawsuit filed by Upton's Naturals and PBFA.

“We were thrilled with the decision in Mississippi. Currently, a few of our Plant Based Foods Association colleagues are in litigation with other states over similar laws. We would be happy to step up to the plate and do it again, but we hope it won’t be necessary,” ​said Staackmaan.

The company is currently in the final stages of setting up its production line for its Jerky Bites and expects them to be available to retailers by spring 2020 with a recommended retail price of $4.99 per 2oz bag.

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