“I can’t believe how many companies looked at Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods and said, 'That looks like it’s been successful, let’s try to do the exact same thing.' We’ve always tried our best to have things that set us apart from what already exists, and keep an extremely clean label,” Dan Staackmann told FoodNavigator-USA.
“I became a vegan 28 years or so ago, and it opened my mind and my palate to so many ethnic foods that I would never have considered as a teenager that ate pepperoni pizza and ice cream.
"You don’t have to eat banana blossom or jackfruit [instead of meat] every day, but it’s just exciting to discover new foods and introduce new things into your life.”
With listings secured in Whole Foods stores nationwide (although the launch may be a little delayed owing to coronavirus), Upton’s Naturals’ banana blossom is cooked in a retort pouch in a small amount of brine and is a shelf-stable product with a shelf-life of two years (although it should be refrigerated and consumed in days once opened).
The plan is to stock it in the ethnic food set alongside a lightly seasoned shredded jackfruit product also under the Upton’s Naturals brand.
'Americans are far more fiber-deficient than protein-deficient'
Made from the teardrop-shaped purple flower at the end of banana fruit cluster sometimes called banana heart – an artichoke-like ingredient widely used in South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines – Upton’s Naturals’ banana blossom is ready-to-heat and works particularly well with breading (as depicted on the packaging), Staackman explained.
“Right now, it’s a waste item that doesn’t [routinely] get used for anything. I’ve seen it fresh, minced up in some Thai dishes or sold canned and brined, but it’s not widely available here [in the US].
"It has a light, delicate, flaky texture like fish, and works really well breaded and fried as a fish alternative. It's a new ingredient [to Americans] so we have a recipe on the back of pack that gives people clear instructions on what to do with it, plus we’ll have recipes on our website [once it launches].”
Like jackfruit – the star ingredient in other Upton’s Naturals products – banana blossom is packed with fiber and micronutrients, but isn’t a great source of protein, something Staackmann isn’t losing any sleep over.
“One thing people forget is that Americans are far more fiber-deficient than protein deficient.”
Coronavirus: 'Things are changing by the minute'
Like many food companies sourcing ingredients or packaging from overseas, Staackmann has faced some recent challenges thanks to coronavirus, which impacted a packaging supplier in Sri Lanka, where the banana blossom is sourced and packaged.
“There’s no issue with the banana blossom, but there’s been some issues with the packaging and getting things in and out of the country. Some samples we’d sent in are stuck at customs, for example.”
The product was supposed to hit Whole Foods in early May, and now it could be summer or early fall, he said.
Meanwhile, the firm’s new wheat protein-based jerky bites are expected to hit some US stores this summer although an international retailer that was going to launch them in August has now pushed back the launch until Q4 or 2021, he said.
“Everything is in flux for a lot of people right now. Things are changing by the minute. Some retailers are going forward [as planned] and some of them are saying we're not really looking at anything new right now until things get back to normal."
On the plus side, Staackmann has not had any major issues with securing supplies of jackfruit (used in several key products), which he sources from Thailand. "It's on lockdown but food is classed as an essential business and the products are getting through.
"We've seen higher prices on one or two spices that go into our products but we think it's only going to be short term."
The quest to precisely mimic the taste and texture of meat and dairy is driving innovation in the next generation of ‘plant-based’ foods. But there is also growing demand for less ‘processed’ products made from whole foods, says the CEO of Cool Beans.