A panel discussion at recent Fi Europe 2023 detailed how the development of cocoa-free chocolate alternatives is spearheading some of the most far-reaching innovations in food processing, such as biotechnology and plant cell culturing.
The panel featured Johnny Drain, Co-founder and CEO of WNWN Food labs, Anneli Ritala, principal scientist at VTT Plant Biotechnology and Dr Sara Marquart, co-founder and CTO of Planet A Foods.
The discussion revealed the approach that each of these businesses is taking to the development, lifting the lid on the reasons for developing cocoa-free chocolate, how they are manufacturing it, the sustainability advantages, and the gap in the consumer market they are hoping to tap into.
The process of making cocoa-free chocolate
When asked about the approach to the development of the WNWN cocoa-free chocolate, Drain explained that the company has reproduced many of the elements in the process of making conventional chocolate’s fermentation process.
“We essentially do the same thing, except we start with something that's not cocoa beans,” Drain said. “Instead, we use other abundant low carbon ingredients, which includes legumes and cereals like barley and carob, and we then go through the same processes that are used in cocoa-based chocolate. What comes out at the end is a brown paste that melts in your mouth.”
Dr. Marquart explained that Planet A Foods is actually not a chocolate-maker, but a provider of a cocoa-alternative ingredients, including a fermented and roasted cocoa powder alternative based on oats and sunflower seeds, together with a yeast-derived butter that is combined to make ChoViva, a cocoa-free chocolate. All three products are supplied to the confectionery industry.
VTT Plant Biotechnology is also using fermentation processes to produce plant-based alternatives to cocoa, with Ritala explaining that it uses plant cell cultures that are grown in fermentation vats using a carbon source, sugars, nutrients, and water, with the resulting biomass being used in various chocolate and cocoa applications.
Getting the flavour right
Making chocolate without cocoa raises the question, what about the flavour? Can a similar, indulgent sweet taste be achieved without this magic ingredient?
Marquart believes that human taste is complex, but also, if certain elements of chocolate are duplicated, like the color and the aroma, and the substance behaves like chocolate, then the human senses are more likely to register it as a chocolate. She also pointed out that chocolate creation is complex. Indeed, the same development processes apply to cocoa-free chocolate, with the added challenge of getting it to behave in a similar way to conventional chocolate.
Ritala explained that by using the plant cell culturing techniques developed at VTT Plant Biotechnology, the team has been able to get close to the complex flavour of cocoa.
“The trick comes with the plant biotechnology, and we can influence it with the with the cultivation conditions, like light, temperature, and aeration,” Ritala said. “We can use these elements to make the flavour compounds and the plant cells can then be fermented in a similar manner to cocoa beans. The process involves many elements, but we do get there.”
Targeting mass market chocolate
Drain’s WNWN business was the only company participating in the panel that is consumer-facing. He explained that his team has a number of pilot projects aimed at the consumer market and that so far feedback has been positive.
“We need to work at scale, so we need to target mass market chocolate,” Drain said. “We want to nail something along the lines of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Milka, or KitKat, which is actually probably an easier challenge to solve. This type of chocolate is more homogeneous, with a less diverse and less complex flavor profile. So that's the part of the market where we're pointing our ship towards.”
Drain also responded to questions about the potential for cocoa-free chocolate to be more healthy than conventional chocolate, something he refuted.
“We have no desire to be a health company,” Drain said. “Cadburys Dairy Milk contains 54% sugar. So, when you're buying a chocolate bar, sometimes you're really buying sugar with a bit of cocoa in it. While we use less sugar than a conventional chocolate bar and slightly less saturated fat, the vision is not to make chocolate healthy, it is to provide a supporting pillar in the cocoa industry to try and solve some of the endemic issues.”
The sustainability arguments
One of the biggest issues in the chocolate industry is sustainability, a topic that was bought up at the end of the panel discussion, but one that all the panelists felt passionate about.
Sustainability serves as a principal pillar to each business, purely because all of the product offerings have the potential to mitigate the damage that cocoa farming can do to the environment.
“I think the industry has made big improvements and that we are now in a far better position than we were 20 years ago,” said Marquart. “But when you grow something, you need land and in cocoa-growing regions that land tends to be rainforest, resulting in deforestation linked to cocoa farming being a huge issue.”