The United Kingdom-based startup WNWN Food Labs recently introduced the first cacao-free alternative chocolate to consumers. With this product, the company hopes to support a more ethical, sustainable, and resilient chocolate industry.
The desire for sustainable and socially conscious food systems motivated co-Founders Ahrum Pak, a former investment banker, and Johnny Drain, a leading fermentation expert, to launch WNWN — an acronym for Waste Not, Want Not. “We connected over our shared love of fermentation and tackling a very unethical, unsustainable supply chain. That’s why we said this chocolate industry is just completely ready to be disrupted,” Pak tells Food Tank.
In conventional chocolate production, producers rely on a fermentation process before drying and roasting cacao beans to yield a more robust chocolate flavor. WNWN employs a similar process, but with a cacao-free formula of barley and organic Italian carob, naturally sweet podded seeds that thrive in a Mediterranean climate.
“The really interesting thing about our technology is that we can dial up certain notes in the chocolate in the same way that chocolate makers can by roasting for different amounts of time or conching for different amounts of time,” Drain tells Food Tank.
The result, Pak and Drain say, is a product that has the same acidity and brightness as a traditional chocolate bar, with tasting notes of cherries and prunes.
The co-Founders hope their product provides consumers with an option that allows them to enjoy chocolate while avoiding social injustices rife in the cacao supply chains.
According to the 2020 Cacao Barometer by Voice of Organizations in Cocoa (VOICE), the cacao industry contributes to wage disparity, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, child labor, and human rights abuses. These issues are especially pervasive in West Africa, where two thirds of the world’s cacao is produced. A study published by NORC at the University of Chicago (NORC) also reports there are roughly 1.6 million children working in the cocoa industry in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.
The cacao industry is also leading to deforestation in primary production areas. According to Mighty Earth’s Cocoa Accountability Map 3.0, Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cacao producer, lost 47,000 hectares of forest in its cacao producing regions in 2020 alone. And since 1960, more than 85 percent of Côte d’Ivoire’s forest cover has been lost, the majority of which due to cacao farming.
“Sustainability is the process of maintaining change in a balanced manner. Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties or problems,” says Howard-Yana Shapiro, an expert on cacao production who served for 20 years as the Chief Agricultural Officer for Mars. “So the traditional cacao industry is somewhere lost between those two— to maintain change in a balanced manner when the system is largely broken ecologically.”
And even when consumers wish to purchase sustainable chocolate products, a lack of supply chain transparency and traceability may make it challenging. The Cacao Barometer shows that in 2019, just 44 percent of Nestlé’s cacao could be traced back to the cooperative that produced it.
“This is clearly an industry that needs to change. When it comes to child labor and deforestation, the industry says ‘we’re working on it’. But they’ve been saying that for 20 years now. So we’re here to give them a kick,” Pak tells Food Tank.
Drain believes the biggest differentiator between WNWN’s chocolate and conventional cacao chocolate for consumers is trust. “When you pick up our chocolate bar, you know that there’s been no child slavery in our supply chain. You can eat that and enjoy it with confidence,” Drain says to Food Tank.
WNWN’s research also shows that their cacao-free product holds up in culinary applications. The lab has tested its use in hot chocolate, bonbons, ganache, and liqueur.
Consumers are responding positively too, Pak says. “Selling out in a matter of hours has also been mega exciting, and we’re looking forward to the next product to launch,” Pak tells Food Tank.
Despite the company’s enthusiasm, Shapiro remains skeptical that products from WNWN and similar companies are sufficient to effect the needed change. “These are, again, not the breakthroughs that will solve the real problems. And it’s certainly true to say that this is done without child labor. That’s absolutely correct,” Shapiro tells Food Tank. He continues, “But is that enough to have a momentum that would have it break into the global chocolate market?”
Shapiro believes a checkoff system, increased research, and a focus on equitable pricing are important starting points to rectify the industry. He also suggests a cross-disciplinary approach that enlists the help of agricultural economists, sociologists, anthropologists, and child development specialists.
“People are going to eat chocolate. It’s just a given. What we need to do industry-, consumer-, manufacturer-, supplier-, and farmer-wise is start with fixing the fundamental problems and then work towards more complex problems,” Shapiro tells Food Tank. “It’s such a complex puzzle. But it’s doable.”
In the meantime, WNWN and the alternative chocolate movement are working to deliver viable substitutes for consumers.
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Photo courtesy of WNWN Food Labs