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Pre-seasoned meat alternatives take a bite out of the plant-based market

The initial success of its flavoured seitan on Sainsbury’s shelves has American brand Upton’s Naturals eyeing further UK releases.

12 February 2019
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Outside the United States, the top markets for Upton’s Naturals are Canada and Australia, but founder Daniel Staackmann expects the UK to overtake both countries this year.

The Chicago-based outfit’s focus is primarily on pre-seasoned seitan and jackfruit – two meat alternatives that have rocketed in popularity in the past couple of years. Wagamama, for instance, has used seitan to great effect in its Vegatsu curry, while jackfruit has become so widespread that both Tesco and Sainsbury’s have developed own-label versions.

But Upton’s Naturals has been in the marketplace for longer than other retail brands hoping to capitalise on the uptick in veganism. When it launched in 2005, there was only one other company in the US selling seitan at a national level. Over the years, the business has slowly expanded its reach – as well as adding a jackfruit range in 2015 – going from supplying a handful of restaurants in Chicago to launching in a few local Whole Foods stores. Today, its meat alternatives can be found in every state in America, not to mention over 15 other countries around the world.

“Once we knew that those restaurants were doing well with it, that’s when we made the jump to retail,” recalls Staackmann. “We do still do a fair amount of foodservice sales, but the focus is definitely more on the retail side, only because on a national and even global scale, we’ve found that the foodservice markets can be a little more complicated to enter.”

Upton’s Naturals recently expanded its presence in Sainsbury’s, releasing its seitan range outside America for the first time in December. The wheat gluten product is now available in bacon and Italian flavours at the supermarket chain, alongside existing lines of jackfruit.

“To see the numbers coming in from all the Sainsbury’s stores is actually pretty exciting,” Staackmann tells Food Spark. “We’re only a month in [with Sainsbury’s] but it’s been going very well, so we’re going to try and expand upon that.”

He is already in discussions to bring over the Chorizo Seitan and a pair of vegan mac and cheese options – possibly even later this year.

Staackmann is also considering whether to launch some of the meal kits, which include options like Massaman Curry (long-grain rice with potatoes, carrots and green beans mixed with tofu and a mild coconut curt) and Thai Spaghetti (noodles mixed with tomato, basil and green curry).

So what about Upton’s Naturals has been catching the consumer eye?

Au naturel

One of the key attractions of Upton’s Naturals is its transparent ingredients list. “Everything that is on the label is easily identifiable,” says Staackmann. “We don’t even use any ‘natural flavours.’”

The Sweet and Smoky Jackfruit, for example, contains jackfruit, onion, water, sugar, seasoning sauce (soy bean, water, sugar), sea salt, liquid smoke and paprika powder – nothing that sounds confusing or nebulous (apart from perhaps the smoke flavouring).

Another important attribute is convenience. Research suggests Brits are trying to cut back on their meat-eating ways, but a lot of the novel alternatives are unfamiliar products that the average home cook doesn’t have the first idea what to do with. Anna-Kajsa Lidell, founder of soybean-based Oumph, previously told Food Spark that people tend to opt for her brand’s flavoured varieties over the unseasoned basic option because they are simpler to use.

Though Upton’s Naturals first started with seitan, it’s the jackfruit that has been rolled out first internationally, primarily because the product is shelf stable, whereas seitan needs to be refrigerated. “[Jackfruit] can ship in an ambient container and has a tremendously long shelf life,” adds Staackmann.

The company’s Bar-B-Que, Thai Curry and Original (unseasoned) Jackfruit are all currently available in the UK.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that most purchasers of Upton’s Naturals jackfruit in the States use it in one of two ways: as part of a barbecue sandwich or in tacos. “There’s still a lot of education happening,” notes Staackmann. “People are still trying to figure out what to do with it and how they can incorporate it into their diets.”

The many aspects of jackfruit

While Upton’s Naturals utilises jackfruit in its young stage, when it has the most meat-like texture as well as a neutral flavour, the fruit’s lifecycle takes it through a wide variety of tastes and textures.

“The middle stage is one that’s less commonly seen, but it’s almost like a baby bok choy; it can be a little crispy but also not a lot of flavour,” explains Staackmann. “The mature fruit – that’s the large one that everyone sees on the internet – they can get up to 50 kilos. That’s got yellow, sweet fruit inside. It’s said to the inspiration for Juicy Fruit gum.

“There’s also a seed in there that’s almost like a really small potato, and that can be boiled or roasted and consumed on its own. So it’s quite a versatile fruit, it has a lot of different uses.”

It’s also a much-discussed fruit, with Michelin-starred chefs, street stalls, pub chains, burger brands, supermarket giants and snacking start-ups taking up the ingredient.

“We searched for a long time to try and find somebody that was willing to work for us and could supply the volume that we were looking for,” says Staackmann. When he first considered the fruit in 2010, he could only find it in 20oz tins full of preservatives and very high in sodium. “Jackfruit doesn’t really travel well once it’s harvested, so it really needs to be [processed] as close to the factory as possible.”

While the jackfruit products have undoubtedly been beneficial in terms of generating press attention and social media engagement for the business, Staackmann also says not to overestimate the hype. The ingredient may be widely discussed in the media and online, but sales figures for the brand’s jackfruit options are comparable to those for the seitan range.

Upton’s Naturals is looking to build on its existing vegan success with new items, which it plans to launch at California’s Natural Products Expo West in March.

“We’ve got another line that I’ll say will travel quite well, so you might see that coming up later in the year in the UK as well,” teases Staackmann. “We have plans to go in all directions. Our export team is working pretty hard to find placement in retailers globally, and we continue to branch out into new categories to expand the brand awareness.”

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