Alt-Choc Startup Debuts First Cacao-Free Product
On May 18th, 2022, UK-based startup WNWN Food Labs introduced the world’s first cacao-free chocolate to consumers. The company is on a mission to create an ethical, sustainable, and resilient chocolate supply.
WNWN co-founder Ahrum Pak tells Food Tank that while the launch was ‘nerve wracking’, she ultimately felt ‘ecstatic’. “Selling out in a matter of hours has also been mega exciting, and we're looking forward to the next product to launch,” reveals Pak to Food Tank. 
A moniker for ‘Waste Not, Want Not’, WNWN is the brainchild of Ahrum Pak and Dr. Johnny Drain. Unsatisfied with her career in finance, Pak pivoted towards food sustainability. A mutual friend directed Pak towards Dr. Johnny Drain, a leading fermentation guru and food futures advocate. In modern fashion, Pak reached out to Drain via Instagram. 
“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. A little over a year ago, Pak and Drain formed WNWN. Their first challenge was taking the cacao out of chocolate. 
In place of cacao, the startup relies on barley, carob, and traditional fermentation techniques to recreate chocolate’s quintessential flavor and texture. Fermentation is an essential part of the conventional chocolate making process. Before drying and roasting cacao beans, the fermentation process yields a more robust chocolate flavor. WNWN employs this same technique, just with different inputs: Carob, a tree with naturally sweet podded seeds that thrive in a Mediterranean climate, and barley, a major cereal grain cultivated globally. After fermenting a proprietary blend of barley and carob, the resulting paste can be processed as traditional chocolate. 
The final result displays the same acidity and brightness found in a traditional chocolate bar. Tasting notes of cherries and prunes resemble that of premium chocolate. “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 explains to Food Tank. 
Their product tastes chocolatey enough to be palatable, a challenge that analogous startups continue to face. WNWN’s chocolate has the same culinary applications, too. The lab has tested its use in hot chocolate, bonbons, ganache, and even liqueur. As an added bonus, WNWN’s chocolate is free of caffeine and theobromine, making it safe for dogs to enjoy. 
However, Drain says the biggest differentiator between WNWN’s chocolate and conventional cacao chocolate for consumers is confidence. “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.  
Aside from accounts of forced child labor, and–in the worst cases– human trafficking, the cacao industry’s dark underbelly includes exploitation of small farmers, deforestation, and ecological degradation.
“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 explains to Food Tank. 
Cacao is one of the top ten global commodities, but cacao trees can only thrive between 16 degrees north or south of the equator, otherwise known as the cacao belt. 70-80 percent of the world’s cacao is cultivated in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. In Côte d’Ivoire, 57 percent of cacao farmers live below the poverty line, and 96 percent of the county’s land is deforested. “So this is a whole country that's been deforested to produce a crop. And the question always comes up: Who's to blame? This is really the wrong question because this entire thing is a series of pieces,” says Howard-Yana Shapiro, an expert on cacao production who has spent 20 years as the Chief Agricultural Officer for Mars. Shapiro explains that the system is “largely broken ecologically", but the responsibility has been diffused across several different players. 
“People are going to eat chocolate. It's just a given. What we need to do industry wise, consumer wise, manufacturer wise, supplier wise, 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.” Shapiro cites a checkoff system, increased research, and a focus on equitable pricing as possible starting points. 
He also suggests a cross-disciplinary and cross-industry approach. “I think that's part of the conversation: you need to get the right kind of agricultural economists and sociologists and anthropologists and child development specialists. It's not just chocolate companies making these conversations up,” Shapiro explains. 
For chocolate consumers concerned about the negative impacts of cacao, WNWN’s products provide a new way forward. So far, their operations result in 80 percent fewer emissions than conventional cacao. WNWN plans on scaling their team and operations within the next two to three years to bring even more alternative chocolate into the mainstream.
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