Alternative meats are taking the world by storm. New players Karana are now throwing their hats into the ring but they are not going by the beaten path. Instead of soy, potato or wheat derivatives, Karana is looking into the humble jackfruit as their meat replacement. And now, they are truly excited for their foray into Asia. 

It all began with a jackfruit taco from a street food cart in London. Dan Riegler, co-founder of whole-plant based meat brand Karana, had been amazed at how the young, unripe jackfruit tasted and felt just like pork. With a spark lit, Riegler could not stop thinking about this taco. He felt that there was potential there, waiting to be pounced on.

While working and living in Indonesia, he began to look around for sources of jackfruit without any success. But he knew there was potential. Having worked in various start-ups in agriculture, food tech and fintech throughout his career, he brought Blair Crichton — who had worked for alternative meat brand Impossible Foods, New Age Meats and The Good Foods Institute in California’s Silicon Valley — on board.

Together, they launched Karana, a whole-plant based protein business which utilises proprietary processing methods to turn the humble jackfruit into pork, with a specific target focus in Asia. Karana, which in July announced the closure of its US$1.7 million ($2.3 million) in seed round funding, is looking to launch their products in Singapore this year.

Already, they are gaining a lot of buzz in the alternative meat space: Karana has raised capital from some of the region’s leading industry experts including Henry Soesanto, CEO of Monde Nissin Corp (who acquired Quorn Foods for US$831 million in 2015), Big Idea Ventures (a Temasek and Tyson Foodsbacked fund dedicated to plant-based foods), Germi8 (a Japanese and Singaporean fund linked to Leave a Nest and Real Tech), and a leading Asia-based FMCG distributor.

At a time when food safety, security and supply chain issues are more important than ever, Karana promises to deliver a revolutionary new second generation meat alternative; and as it turns out, they may just have a winner on their hands.

Most alternative meats in the market currently are made of soy, wheat or potato derivatives and flavoured with heme (the molecule that gives the alternative meat its ‘meat’ flavour and mimics the colour and bleed). While lower in calories and packed with protein, meat alternatives can sometimes be deemed as heavily-processed.

Karana has a different proposition: It has used proprietary techniques to transform responsibly sourced organic jackfruit into ‘pork’ meat that comes shredded or minced. They promise that their products have no harsh chemicals and no heavy processing — just innovative mechanical techniques that enhance the texture of the naturally meat-like main ingredient.

In a recent interview, Karana co-founder Crichton is clearly excited about launching the company in Singapore. Born and raised in Hong Kong — he still considers the city his home and speaks conversational Cantonese and Mandarin — the former banker says: “Looking at the market, we saw an opportunity in the whole plant-based meat space — we’re not just using jackfruit, we have done a lot of research and development with some other ingredients and we do plan to leverage other really interesting ingredients.”.

“[Our] whole philosophy is around minimally-processed whole-plant alternatives, which would enable consumers to have more choice. We saw that there was a gap in the market to be filled and that’s how we landed on it.”

‘Magic’ fruit

Jackfruit is something that has been used before as an alternative, says Crichton, but it is being used in a very standard and traditional way.

For example, many recipes can be found using young jackfruit for pulled pork. But while it has a similar texture, it still did not taste exactly like pork. He continues: “What we found is that the end-product [when used that way] was not up to scratch, and so you were compromising on your experience. Still, we knew that it could be amazing. Jackfruit has got this naturally very meaty appearance, nature and texture; but the way that it was being processed and used didn’t deliver on the texture,” he says.

“And so what we really set out to do is to get deep into the supply chain and ask, how can we really elevate this natural ingredient and make it into something that is truly no compromise?” Karana has developed its own way to transform the ingredient, but in a way that still respects and maintains that wholeplant nature of it, so no chemicals or harsh processes.

“And to that extent, we are a minimally processed product that is very different from some of the other plant based products that are out there,” he says. “They tend to be quite heavily processed. And for us, it’s not about saying that we’re good and they’re bad, but it’s more about giving consumers a choice.” The fact that they are using an organic and sustainable ingredient also sets them apart from other plant-based meat brands. “We’re basically tapping into what we see as the greatest technologist: Mother nature. And then through our research and development, seeing how we can elevate that but respecting that transparency and choice,” Crichton adds.

The Asian focus is also deliberate. In Asia, upwards of 60% of people are looking for healthier food so there is a huge opportunity for the region to lead the way in plant-based meat innovation. Growth of the plant-based meat market throughout the world has grown exponentially: Over the past two years or so, plant-based meats have seen a huge growth in demand and retail sales.

When Beyond Meat, the plant-based meat manufacturer, went public in May 2019, their shares grew almost to 150% more than their initial public debut. In fact, Swiss bank UBS expects the plant-basedprotein or alternative-meat market to grow by 28% a year to US$85 billion in 2030. The increasing popularity of plantbased proteins produced by companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Meat comes as no surprise, as these alternative meats are said to generate up to 87% less greenhouse gases per burger. Asia, which makes up almost 60% of the world’s population, is a huge game-changer when it comes to the growth of alternative meats.

The Covid-19 pandemic and recent outbreak of swine flu has definitely resulted in a growing awareness of the problems with the animal agriculture system and has raised concerns over the links between meat and viral diseases. In fact, there has already been a reported surge in demand for plant-based meat substitutes in Asia this year, which is expected to continue into the long-term future.

“Our second differentiation for us, is really our focus on Asian applications. We’re starting with a pork product. As you probably know, pork is the number one meat consumed in Asia Pacific. So that instantly plays strongly into many, many of the cuisines across the region. And we’re also turning our meat into dim sum products — and that’s really creating food that our consumers love and are familiar with but in a different, healthier and more sustainable way.” Selfishly, Crichton jokes, being a vegan himself, he wanted more options for the food he loves.

“Growing up in Hong Kong, I miss dim sum!” he says, laughing. “And I wanted more products that will enable me to stick with the vegan diet and enjoy the things I love.”

But aside from the foodie-led reasons, Crichton says there is a strong business case, not just product-wise, for using jackfruit as the ingredient in Karana’s products.

“Jackfruit as a crop is scalable, but the difficulty is in building up a supply chain; unlike soy, which is a commodity product with very well-established supply chains,” he says. “We are sourcing our jackfruit from smallholder farmers in Sri Lanka and aggregating it through farmer networks. We’re working with various partners to help us do that, and we’re also talking to some NGOs who have market access initiatives to smallholder farmers.” “The crop itself is high-yielding with very little input, it’s highly climate resistant, and it just ticks many boxes for us,” he adds.

Indeed, young jackfruit is known to be low on the glycaemic index, while being high in fibre, magnesium and potassium. It is an extremely efficient crop, with high yields and almost zero water usage, while being friendly to smallholder farmers as it is grown in a polyculture system. “The only thing is that it is a little bit more involved on our side. We can just ring up any soy provider tomorrow for example and get our supplies in a week, [but not for jackfruit]. It’s definitely a more rocky path we’ve chosen but ultimately we feel it would give us the chance to differentiate and give people more choice,” he adds.

Short-term challenges

While the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted supply chains across the world, Karana has not been impacted too greatly by the shutting down of global borders. “Obviously Covid-19 presents a lot of short term challenges, but I think if anything, it’s brought to light the need for change in our food and agricultural system. You’ve seen massive disruptions to meat supply chains,” he says.

“There’s also a very strong link between Covid-19 and animal agriculture, and as we continue to encroach on forest land to expand animal agriculture, that’s going to increase the risk of zoonotic disease transmission from wild animals to farm animals and so on.”

On a more human and personal level, a lot more people are now thinking about health on the back of this pandemic, and how important diet is to preventative health. “And so you are seeing a lot more interest in plant-based foods and healthy eating. And the number one reason why people are eating more plantbased now is for health and well-being, and because we care about sustainability and the environment.”

Anecdotally, just speaking to chefs and restaurants, the company is seeing an uptick in interest for vegan options, and more people are coming in and asking for plant-based alternatives.

As Crichton says: “You’ve seen now a number of big chains, like KFC in China, taking on and putting in place vegan products. I think these are very strong indicators that the industry is on that tipping point here in Asia. In the longer term, the industry is strong and we have to manage the short-term supply chain challenges and economic challenges as does everyone but I think for the industry, it really shows we’re part of the solution and that would be really good for longer term growth prospects.”