Conventional cocoa production is energy-intensive and inefficient. It has resulted in the clearing of rainforests and led to confirmed cases of child labour. With consumers increasingly demanding ethical and sustainable products, the chocolate industry needs to find solutions. One possibility could be non-GMO chocolate grown from cocoa stem cells.
This cell culture technology is being pioneered by US-based startup, California Cultured. Founded in 2020, the company was one of the finalists at the Fi Global Startup Innovation Challenge 2021. The sixth edition of the Challenge, held at Fi Europe, co-located with Hi Europe in Frankfurt, once again gave startups the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a jury of R&D experts, investors, and major F&B industry company representatives.
“The chocolate industry is at a significant crossroads,” explains Alan Perlstein, California Cultured CEO and co-founder. “Many companies are worried about what the future will bring. A drought in West Africa could significantly impact cocoa production, while new laws in the EU are focusing increasingly on ethical ways of growing food and ingredients. How can the industry have a consistent, quality product, with a reliable supply chain?”
Need for change
California Cultured aims to provide an answer to this question through the application of technology. Perlstein, who has been working in food tech for nearly 20 years, saw an opportunity to take some of the advances made in molecular biology, plant science and gene sequencing, to address the challenge of making chocolate ethically and sustainably.
“The vast majority of cocoa production is found today in West Africa, where there are low-paid workers and not too many regulations,” he explains. “This has perpetuated a culture of generational poverty, of bad working conditions and of child labour. As old cocoa fields become infected with pathogens, virgin rainforests are chopped down to plant cocoa seedlings. Habitats are being destroyed, and this has been ongoing for the past 100 years.”
“The chocolate industry is not good at policing itself,” adds Steven Stearns, head of commercial at California Cultured. "The number of child workers actually increased last year.”
Cell culture solution
California Cultured aims to revolutionise the sector by growing non-GMO chocolate from cocoa stem cells via cell culture technology. The company selects cocoa varieties with the best organoleptic properties, takes a handful of cells, and keeps them growing infinitely. This is achieved by providing the cells with plant nutrients that allow for rapid growth. Cocoa cells are then harvested from tanks, and left to ferment to create a flavour.
“We are also able to upcycle waste streams to provide food for these cells,” says Perlstein. “We can go into a food processing plant, perhaps a fruit and veg plant, and isolate natural plant hormones from production waste that we then feed to our cells.”
California Cultured is currently going through a process called cell line development to identify promising cells, and to tweak the technology to make it ever-more efficient. The startup is also identifying some of the compounds in chocolate that have been shown to deliver health benefits - such as procyanidins – which could have potential for applications such as joint health and anti-stress.
“These compounds could be hugely important for a healthy ageing population,” says Perlstein.
The focus at the moment is on developing these in-demand compounds, to address any regulatory issues, and to scale up from the lab to industrial production levels. This will then enable the company to build up its competences in the production of cocoa powder and butter. The company is also working with companies to develop custom cocoa ingredients.
“We released our first two prototypes to investors in June,” notes Stearns, whose background as a chef includes a stint at the world-famous Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. “These were a cell cultured milk chocolate bar, and a nougat confection bar. These were very well received and helped us to increase our funding.”
For manufacturers, chocolate sourced from cell culture technology not only provides a solution to the ethical issues surrounding cocoa production, but it could also significantly simplify the supply chain, help to reduce carbon emissions, and ensure a reliable supply unaffected by climate events.
“Manufacturers want consistency throughout the year,” says Perlstein. “We think we can help them with that. Our vision is to have strategic partnerships and plants all over the world, supplying chocolate locally, and offering supply chain resilience.”