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Can a Miracle Fruit Overcome its Unsavory Reputation?

by Mark Hay

August 27, 2014

Last month, Dr. Diane Ragone of the Hawaiian branch of the National Tropical Botanical Garden showed up in Samoa with a $12,240 check for their Ministry of Agriculture. Though it wasn’t a mind-boggling sum, Ragone was greeted with great fanfare; this was the first major step in a bid to revolutionize the world with an unassuming Samoan product: the breadfruit.         

If you haven’t spent time in the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, southern India, or the Caribbean, chances are you haven’t encountered breadfruit. A relative of the jackfruit, the breadfruit is a big, bumpy boy, usually about the size of a football and grows on huge trees in sandy or loamy tropical soils. Its name comes from the starchy pod’s flavor, similar to a potato or freshly baked bread when moderately ripe and cooked—roasted, baked, boiled, or fried—although the fruit can be eaten under or over-ripe to achieve more sour or sugary tones.

But for all its blandness, breadfruit is a miracle product: It’s a high-energy food, loaded with calcium, fiber, up to 10 times the potassium of a banana, and many more nutrients. Just one of these up-to-seven-pound fruits can form the foundation for a meal for a family of five. A single tree yields between 25 and 450 fruits per year, mostly in one giant bloom, but throughout the year the tree continues to trickle out a steady supply, making breadfruit potentially more productive per acre than the world’s staple grain, rice. On top of that, the tree appears to contain insect repelling chemicals more effective than DEET, its wood is both termite and worm resistant and can be pulped for paper, and its sap yields latex juice. It’s no wonder that a tree of such utility is a staple of Polynesian life.

Burning breadfruit repels insects / Photo courtesy of USDA

When the Polynesians first recognized the power of the fruit in northwestern New Guinea some 3,500 years ago, they abandoned rice farming, spreading the gospel of breadfruit throughout their settlements. As the wider world was introduced to the fruit in the colonial era, explorers latched on as well. When the sailors on the HMS Bounty mutinied in 1789, they were on a royal mission to procure breadfruit samples to cultivate a new food source for Caribbean plantation slaves. The fruit’s allure was so high that after the mutiny, the Bounty’s captain returned two years later on the same agricultural mission.

But there has always been one big hitch with breadfruit: It’s just not that tasty. Slaves in the Caribbean refused to eat the fruit when it arrived in the late 18th century, and it took generations before breadfruit cuisine took hold in the region. Hawaiian chefs, inheritors of an ancient breadfruit-eating tradition, feel they need to trick people into eating it, if they serve it at all. Plus they spoil quickly. Traditionally, Polynesians buried the fruits in pits to create a sour, sticky fermented paste that kept for up to 20 years, but these days, pit-paste is less popular than ever, and though modern farmers have had some success with refrigerated transit, for most small farmers, small demand means that up to half of a crop’s yield often spoils.

Despite the setbacks of blandness and spoilage, Ragone and others have never forgotten the nutritional promise of the breadfruit. In 2003, she helped to found the Breadfruit Institute at the NTBG, visiting over 50 Pacific islands to gather 120 varieties of breadfruit into one experimental grove on Maui. And amid their search for the tastiest, fastest growing, and hardiest species, the NTBG discovered the ma’afala, a Samoan variety that they decided to foster and market across the world. In doing so, the organization earns a small royalty, which they split with the Samoan government to support agricultural research. Both parties have an interest in not only preserving and developing new strains of breadfruit, but also finding new ways for its cultivation to directly benefit the island.

Photo courtesy of Agricultural Research Service

The Breadfruit Institute and Samoa make the same pitches the world has always heard for breadfruit—for example, 80 percent of the world’s hungry live in the sub-tropics, where the fruits grow with ease. But as their project developed, this breadfruit coalition lucked into a zeitgeist-y moment at the convergence of conservation, green farming, and diet fads. Backers like Pierre Omidyar, Hawaii resident and founder of eBay, got on board with breadfruit in the 2000s as a way to reduce the islands’ dependence on imported foods (Hawaii is 90 percent dependent on imports). Other entrepreneurs soon realized that the fruit is healthier, and uses less land than wheat and other cereal grains. By drying and milling breadfruit into flour, which both lasts for years and lacks gluten, producers could preserve the quick-spoiling fruit, allowing them to save whole crops and tap into the gluten-free market (which doubled between 2008 and 2012). They had finally figured out how to make a once bland, unpopular fruit altogether useful, trendy, and profitable.

Thanks to the confluence of passionate advocates, global concerns about food security, and changing perspectives on agriculture, traditional cuisine, and allergens, Ragone’s breadfruit project has since taken off. Since 2012, her distribution partner, Global Breadfruit, has helped introduce around 40,000 ma’afala trees to 27 countries, and have received demands from 60 more interested nations. And they’re not alone. More pro-breadfruit initiatives appear online every year. The first Hawaiian Breadfruit Festival in 2011 promoted the search for new recipes, and the 2012 Ulu (Breadfruit in Samoan) Summit in American Samoa coordinated the development of the Pacific breadfruit market. Groups like the Trees That Feed Foundation work towards the charitable distribution of breadfruit trees to hunger-prone regions. Breadfruit even has a celebrity endorsement now, as musician Jack Johnson has been spotted preaching the word of the miracle fruit.

Ragone and company have no plans to stop with the ma’afala trees. They’re testing another variety as well, the ulu fiti, to see if a new breed can help spread the fruit’s popularity. Meanwhile governments and businessmen have begun to take serious notice of breadfruit’s economic potential for the first time in years. And as they do, we’re likely to see more breadfruit grown around the world, not only for the hungry, but also for a wide new audience of enthused eaters. Whereas in 2010 even regional cookbooks skipped over breadfruit, now a fascinated culinary community is finding all sorts of ways to cook it, moving the breadfruit from sustenance staple to real gastronomic fad. It may be plain, but it’s a fruit with a bold future—best to get right with tomorrow, and learn how to handle a breadfruit today.

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