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Many Americans probably haven’t eaten breadfruit. Patagonia wants to change that

Breadfruit, or ‘ulu, hasn’t traditionally been exported beyond the tropics, but Patagonia Provisions hopes to make it a mainstream ingredient.

Many Americans probably haven’t eaten breadfruit. Patagonia wants to change that
[Photo: Patagonia Provisions]
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You won’t find breadfruit in the produce aisle at your local grocery store. But Patagonia Provisions, the food-focused offshoot of the outdoor apparel company, wants to help make the tropical fruit a mainstream ingredient.

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It’s one of a handful of foods that the company has identified as tools to make the food system more sustainable and capture carbon in the soil. (Kernza, a climate-friendly grain that the brand turned into beer, is another.) “How do we look at our food chain and do things differently so that we can have an abundance of nutritious food in the future without harming the planet in the way that chemical agriculture is today?” says Patagonia Provisions head Birgit Cameron, who launched the division in 2012 after Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard said that he wanted to take on the unsustainability of the current food system.

[Photo: Patagonia Provisions]
The green, bumpy, large fruit—called breadfruit in English because of its starchy consistency and how it smells like baked bread—was once a staple food in places like Hawaii, where it is called ‘ulu. Imported foods like rice largely replaced it over time, and because the fruit doesn’t keep long, it hasn’t been exported out of the tropics. Some chefs recently rediscovered it and have used it locally, though it hadn’t been used in mass-market products. But the Patagonia team saw the potential: because the trees are grown in agroforests, farms that have a diverse mix of trees, they help build healthy soil. A single tree can also suck up 1.5 tons of CO2 as it grows.

[Photo: Patagonia Provisions]
Since the fruit doesn’t last long after it ripens, the company decided to turn it into flour. In Costa Rica, it worked with a farm coop to create a new supply chain that grows the fruit, dries it, and mills it. “We had to set up the infrastructure to create shelf stability for it,” Cameron says. Because the trees are very productive, growing as much as 800 pounds of fruit per tree each year, they can help provide both more income for small farmers and an important source of local food.

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[Photo: Patagonia Provisions]
Patagonia Provisions now uses breadfruit flour to make a line of crackers, and it’s researching other potential uses for the flour. The company is also trying to help build the growth of new breadfruit farming by supporting projects like the Breadfruit Institute, a Hawaii-based nonprofit that helps farmers learn to use agroforestry techniques instead of growing plantations with a single crop.

[Photo: Patagonia Provisions]
Cameron says she’s hoping that more food brands begin to use breadfruit flour. “We would love for others to take this on,” she says. “We look at ourselves as a center for innovation and find these pathways [for sustainable food production] and identify infrastructure for it and figure out how to bring these kinds of viable and nutritious crops to market.”

The company’s sourcing team also continues to explore other little-used ingredients. “I think that’s the issue with our food system—we just default to like 10 things, you know?” she says. “There’s so much diversity out there. There are so many really interesting ingredients that we could be incorporating.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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