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Elixir Foods turns cocoa waste into health-conscious sweetener

Article-Elixir Foods turns cocoa waste into health-conscious sweetener

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Brazilian startup Elixir Foods upcycles cocoa pod waste into a nutritious sweetener using uses solar energy and the Internet of Things.

Cocoa bean production is a sizable market, with more than 200,000 tonnes estimated to grow in the 2021-2022 harvesting season. However, while the cocoa bean undergoes extraction, drying, fermentation and processing as chocolate, the other parts of the cocoa fruit, such as the pod, pulp, shells and liquid, are discarded. “Today, 80% of the cocoa fruit is wasted or misused,” Rocha Gustavo Henrique, founder of Elixir Foods, tells Fi Global.

The cocoa-making startup brand has focused on future-proofing production. It has worked with the waste-based ingredient to make nutritious and eco-conscious chocolate for eight years. It has spent the past two years developing a method to stabilise cocoa honey. Elixir Foods strives to be both regenerative for health and the environment by respecting the cocoa production chain and working with a small remit of producers to create modern and sustainable solutions.

In 2023, World Food Forum, Global Youth Action and Young Scientist’s Group featured Elixir Foods’ mission and production process in its report, Opportunities and Barriers for Advancing Agrifood Systems. As beans comprise the core part of cocoa, of which 80% is discarded, this amounts to more than 50,000 tonnes per year in Brazil.

Cocoa chain waste is “a serious problem that causes the loss of potentially nutritious food, loss of a source of income for cocoa producers and contributes to environmental degradation due to improper disposal”, the report says.

Giving waste a new purpose

The idea to use leftover cocoa came after visiting growing areas in the South American region and seeing the many discarded residues generated from cocoa production. Without a repurposing model, the cocoa pods were thrown away and a circular production process remained untapped.

Elixir Foods saw this as an opportunity to do cocoa production differently. The startup states it works with a small selection of farmers in the interior of Bahia, located in the country’s Northeast Region.

Today, the food industry is also looking for ways to improve traditional refined white sugar use in cocoa production. The upcycling brand recognised that white sugar has a reputation for being both unhealthy and unsustainable. Producers want to formulate nutritious and nourishing sweet foods that are necessary for future food production.

Turning waste into liquid sweetener

Elixir Foods combines insights from farmers with sophisticated computation, artificial intelligence (AI), remote sensing and its chemical formula to produce cocoa honey via a circular economic process. These technologies enable the cocoa startup to observe and maintain the cocoa honey’s properties until it arrives at a processing factory.

Making upcycled cocoa sweeteners from cocoa pod waste involves stabilising the cocoa liquid waste. Elixir Foods works with farmers who identify and collect the cocoa pod residues. After purchasing this, the cocoa startup applies its chemical formulation process to waste to create a cocoa liquid and transform it into its upcycled sweetener.

As well as the role upcycling could play in turning waste into raw materials, Elixir Foods saw an opportunity to improve cocoa production’s stability. The stabilisation technology comprises solar energy and Internet of Things-led (IoT) sensors. Solar energy powers ultraviolet light and IoT sensors monitor this process. 

Cocoa contains a translucent liquid called cocoa honey (or Theobroma cacao L) and is rich in sugars. The bioactive and mineral-containing liquid, while also edible and with a sweet and acidic taste, is considered a low-value byproduct and is naturally unstable. Elixir Foods saw they could take this liquid, apply a stabilisation process, and turn it into a nutritious sweetener.

Stabilisation is paramount as cocoa honey lacks longevity and quality without an appropriate process. After processing, the cocoa honey typically has less than 24 hours before its antioxidants deteriorate considerably. As a common byproduct in cocoa production, the cocoa honey liquid is discarded in forests, entering soil and waterways and subsequently polluting habitats. 

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Lowering the sugar content

Along with improving the circular practices within cocoa production, Elixir Foods also seeks to bring a sweetener with nutritious value to the market. “The consumption of sugars causes diabetes and other chronic diseases,” Henrique says in response to why this new way of making cocoa is needed in the food industry.

Using chemical process technology and stabilisation, the brand can switch out the refined sugar inherent in its collected cocoa pod waste and improve the nutrition profile of sugar-based goods. “Our product can replace refined sugar and bring more nutritious value to other products in the industry,” he adds.

Is the age of upcycling sugar here?

As consumers want to buy from brands that are aware of the world around them, producers are searching for more sustainable production methods. “The world loves sweets, but the amount of sugar we use isn’t sustainable,” says Henrique.

Elixir Foods saw utilising would-be discarded cocoa pods as achieving this and moving the cocoa production industry into an era of environmental consciousness. In 2022, Elixir Food reached the finals of the Thought For Food programme, an agriculture and food technology challenge looking for creative and impactful solutions to meet the planet’s sustainability needs. The brand is developing its product roadmap for the next few years to progress its cocoa honey launches.

The confectionery industry can use the startup’s finished sweetener in cakes, sweets, mousses, and other products. In the longer term, Elixir Foods aims to develop its cocoa honey formulation in powder form to open up its applicability to other areas of the food industry, including the savoury sectors. 

Elixir Foods seeks to contribute to a new cocoa production era by upcycling the ingredient. Using chemical processing technology, specifically used to stabilise the cocoa pod waste, the startup transforms cocoa honey into a cream before its end formulation, which mimics a ready-to-buy sweetener.

“With our technology, we propose to reduce the environmental impact caused by improper disposal and also contribute to improving the source of income for producers,” Henrique says.