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Looking beyond cocoa beans to recreate the flavour of chocolate

Article-Looking beyond cocoa beans to recreate the flavour of chocolate

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WNWN is pioneering ethical and sustainable alternatives to chocolate. A key ingredient in this start-up’s success has been a winning combination of fermentation techniques with a passion for – and knowledge of – flavours.

This London-based company is at the cutting edge of developing plant-based, low-carbon ingredients that taste just like chocolate. WNWN is founded on the belief that innovation can deliver solutions that address important societal issues – and still taste great.

“We love chocolate,” says co-founder Johnny Drain. “But when you start digging into how chocolate is made, you find that two thirds of cocoa is produced in the Ivory Coast and Ghana - two small countries in West Africa – and that this production is linked to child labour and deforestation. Cocoa production also has a huge carbon footprint.”

Drain and his co-founder Ahrum Pak believed that alternative solutions to cocoa were possible – so they set up a company to make this a reality. Their solution was to take locally sourced, sustainable and abundant ingredients like cereals and legumes, and apply fermentation technology.

Finding shared compounds in universal flavours

“Our solution also involves some good old classic flavour work,” says Drain.  “We have hired chocolatiers and trained chefs and trust our culinary instincts. If you look hard enough in nature, you can find flavours in chocolate that exist elsewhere.”

Drain points out that this makes perfect sense. A chocolate bar might be advertised as having notes of cherry or coffee, without containing any of these ingredients. “There are shared compounds in these universal flavours,” he says. “Flavour is out there – you just have to corral it into the right shape and form.”

For this work, WNWN was awarded the Most Innovative Sustainable Solution at Fi Europe’s Start-Up Innovation Challenge. “There are so many highs and lows in launching a start-up, so it was really important for the whole team to get this external validation,” says Drain. “It was also great to be in the same room as these major ingredient companies and suppliers – we want to be amongst them in ten or 15 years.”

Bringing worlds together

Another reason for the business’s success has been the complementarity of the co-founders. “We are from different worlds,” says Drain. “Ahrum has an MBA and was working in consultancy. She was getting a bit fed up, especially during Covid, and recognised that her real passion was for sustainability.” 

Drain has a background in fermentation and food tech. After completing a PhD in material science, he spent a number of years working for high-end restaurants, creating new ingredients and training staff in fermentation.

“I’d also been sitting on this idea of making something that tastes like chocolate,” he said. “One inspiration in fact was boiling potatoes. The streaming pan smelled a little like chocolate, and I wondered how this could be captured.”

A mutual friend brought the pair together, and the business was launched shortly after. WNWN began life in a tiny basement in a former east London pub and has since expanded to a staff of around 18 people.

We have begun to release products onto the market, mostly in limited drops, and were in fact the first company in the world to sell a cocoa-free chocolate in 2022,” says Drain. “I’m very proud of that. We are increasingly selling our product to bars and bakeries and looking to expand.”

Providing sustainable alternatives to cocoa

The process of scaling up the business is very much underway. “We are now in a position to sell hundreds of kilos of our product, and are busy building sales pipelines,” says Drain. “Our aim is a create suite of ingredients that work for all chocolate applications.”

Chocolate is just the start. Many other ingredients, such as coffee and vanilla, are also grown and sourced in unethical and unsustainable ways. The same supply chain pressures and environmental impacts related to cocoa are also evident with these ingredients.  

These products are not identical, but there is a thread of flavour profiles that runs through them,” says Drain. “We believe that our fermentation platform can unpick these flavour profiles.”

The ultimate goal, says Drain, is not to replace cocoa. Instead, he sees WNWN as a means of offering the food industry a more sustainable alternative, of educating consumers about sustainability, and applying pressure to result in real change that benefits farmers and communities on the ground.

“We feel that industry is interested in what we are doing,” says Drain. “There is certainly awareness about the need for sustainable solutions, and we think people are open and curious.”

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