Breadfruit is being labelled a new “wonder food” by nutrition experts, who believe it can potentially help nations with poor crop growth to alleviate world hunger. Widely cultivated on the Pacific islands for centuries and shipped to the Caribbean in the 1700s, breadfruit is eaten today in many other countries across the world. The plant is so revered that the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii has been studying its properties since the 1980s, setting up the Breadfruit Institute in 2003 and an orchard on Maui Island.
Studies being carried out by the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBS) in Hawaii have revealed how the humble breadfruit tree has the potential to feed the world.
Weighing around 7 lbs (3 kg) with a potato-like texture and green flesh, breadfruit can also be used to make a flour substitute. It’s packed full of so much protein and so many vitamins that it has the potential to alleviate the global food crisis, according to scientists.
One breadfruit alone provides the daily requirement of carbohydrates for a family of five, while its versatility means it can be prepared into a variety of dishes, including sweets.
The evergreen breadfruit tree is mainly grown on the islands of the Pacific, but since its nutritious properties were realised, scientists are hoping to encourage tree-planting in countries where there are currently food shortages.
History of the breadfruit
While the nutritious fruit has been cultivated on the Pacific islands for generations, it’s only in recent years that it has become more widely available in supermarkets across the globe.
Originally thought to be native to New Guinea, Western Micronesia and the Indo-Malayan Archipelago, breadfruit was introduced in the Pacific region by Polynesians, while it was shipped from the Samoan island, Upalu, to Oahu in Hawaii as long ago as the 12th century.
Prior to the 18th century, however, breadfruit was largely unknown outside this region.
It was British naval lieutenant William Bligh who first realised its potential as a healthy, plentiful foodstuff. It was widely reported that he attempted to ship the fruit from Tahiti to Jamaica in April 1789.
However, on the way, the crew staged a mutiny and set Bligh adrift, dumping the ship’s cargo, including the breadfruit plants, overboard. Bligh survived and in 1792, he again set off from Tahiti, bound for Jamaica, with a cargo of 2,000 breadfruit trees. It was said that 678 of the trees bore fruit and the species was successfully imported to the Caribbean.
A cheap and stable food, breadfruit wasn’t much liked at first and didn’t become popular in the Caribbean until around 50 years later, when it started to be incorporated into local recipes.
Scientists believe that the breadfruit’s ancestor is the bread nut, a vegetable that’s native to New Guinea.
Research proves nutritional value
Diane Ragone, a horticulturist who comes from the Hawaiian island of Kauai, is leading the research into breadfruit at the National Tropical Botanical Garden site in Maui. She says it’s time the world learned to eat breadfruit because of its nutritional value.
As well as being eaten as a dish in its own right, or as part of a main meal, it can be ground into flour and used for pancakes and crisps. The flowers can be candied and turned into sweets too.
Dr Ragone has travelled around 51 Pacific islands gathering different breadfruit types, assembling more than 120 varieties at the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s own grove in Maui. She has also studied hundreds of varieties that have been planted in 34 different countries, including India, the USA, the Philippines, the West Indies and Guyana.
She joined forces with Nyree Zerega, of the North Western University in Chicago, to trace back the roots of breadfruit using modern DNA analysis techniques. The majority of the fruit tested revealed genetic fingerprints of New Guinea’s bread nut plant.
Science and charity join forces
Scientists at NTBG’s Breadfruit Institute are liaising with the charity, Alliance to End Hunger, on a project to distribute breadfruit to worldwide locations where there isn’t a regular, reliable supply of food. Breadfruit trees require little care and tend to thrive.
Historic tradition links breadfruit to a plentiful food supply, according to Dr Zerega. “In Polynesia, you would plant a breadfruit tree when a child was born,” she explained. “That would guarantee food throughout the child’s life.”
Scientists are currently investigating which varieties of breadfruit suit different climates and environments, as well as pleasing local tastes, in countries where food isn’t in plentiful supply.
Dr Ragone is one of a number of breadfruit fans in the Pacific region who are aiming to educate others on its nutritional worth. She fears not a lot of people know how to cook it properly. If under-cooked, it can have the texture of a raw potato and this has deterred some locals from trying to incorporate it into their meals.
As part of her campaign to achieve global recognition for breadfruit, she has started to promote it to professional Hawaiian chefs and also plans outreach events to spread its value even further afield.
One tree, with the Latin name artocarpus altilisa, can produce 450 lbs (~200kg) of fruit in one season. One half-cup (120ml) serving has just 121 calories and is rich in calcium, fibre, potassium and other nutrients, providing gluten-free carbohydrates. A member of the fig species, its texture and odour have been likened to freshly-cooked bread.
Chefs praise breadfruit
Dr Ragone says one of the best ways to cook breadfruit is to sauté slices in butter until they’re golden brown. Then, make breadfruit nachos by sprinkling them with cheese and allowing it to melt on top.
The corporate chef of Hawaiian fine dining chain Roy’s Restaurant, Jacqueline Lau, another breadfruit advocate, says, “It’s sometimes difficult to get people to try the recipes, because if they’ve had breadfruit in the past and it’s not been cooked properly, they will remember only a bland taste”. However, properly prepared, it can be a tasty dish.
Hawaiian-born private chef Olelo pa’a Faith Ogawa described breadfruit as the, “Food of the future”. He joked, “If it could speak, it would say, ‘Grow me! Eat me!’ because it can feed villages!”
According to New Scientist magazine, despite some people’s reluctance to try breadfruit, it’s the most widely-produced foodstuff in the Pacific Islands, with a greater volume harvested per hectare than rice, corn or wheat.
Founder of Trees That Feed charity Mary McLaughlin has been promoting some tasty recipes that can be made using breadfruit, including pancakes. She suggests adding one-third of a cup of breadfruit flour to the same quantity of orange juice, one egg and a pinch each of nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla.
Mix them all together and then fry in a pan to make pancakes. This quantity serves three people. She also says that breadfruit pasta and crisps are under development so that the foodstuff is more long-lasting and can be stored in these forms.
Other ways of cooking breadfruit, according to the National Tropical Botanical Garden, is by boiling, steaming or baking it and using it as a nutritious substitute for starchy foods, such as potatoes and rice. Smaller fruit that hasn’t matured can be pickled and marinated, tasting like artichoke hearts.
In Tahiti, breadfruit is traditionally cooked over an open fire. The sweet, fully-ripe fruits can be eaten raw, or can even be made into pies and cakes.
What does the future hold?
The future of breadfruit is being assessed by scientists who are ascertaining the varieties that produce the best yield and highest protein content. They have also discovered that some breadfruit is highly tolerant to salt, so could be important in coastal locations.
Researchers are also using tissue culture methods to create breadfruit trees that will yield a greater quantity of fruit more quickly. It’s a painstaking task and progress is slow, although disease-free trees that bear breadfruit at the age of two years, rather than the usual five years, have already been grown.
More than 35,000 trees from the varieties propagated at Maui have already been sent to 26 countries, including Haiti and Jamaica. One Samoan variety, called Ma’afala, bears fruit at a different time to those in the Caribbean. This means the season when the fruit is available can be extended by planting different varieties.
Ambitious plans have been tabled to introduce forests of breadfruit trees across the whole of the Caribbean in the future.
Could breadfruit solve the world food crisis? Judging by the work being carried out by scientists and the buzz about the fruit’s nutritional value and ease of propagating, it could just be possible. In future, the humble breadfruit could become the staple diet for people who might otherwise face a food shortage and malnutrition.