Bypassing the bean: Is cocoa-free chocolate the future?

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By now, the likes of dairy-free milks and animal-free meats are commonplace. But cocoa-free chocolate? Not so much.

WNWN Food Labs created waves on Oct. 25 when it launched three alt chocolate bars “paying homage” to some of the U.K.’s favourite confections — Terry’s Chocolate Orange, Cadbury’s Wholenut and Tony’s Chocolonely — “but without the child/slave labour, deforestation and outsized carbon footprint of conventional chocolate.” Now, the two-year-old London startup has announced that wholesale packs of its dark and milk chocolate are available to bakeries, restaurants and confectionery companies worldwide.

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“Developing bulk wholesale products was a crucial step for serving B2B customers more efficiently and consistently,” said WNWN chief technology officer and co-founder Johnny Drain, a fermentation specialist with a Ph.D. in materials science from the University of Oxford.

“We’re ahead of schedule on producing and shipping in volume to international partners, and we’re eager to help more of the trade hit their sustainability targets and reduce their carbon footprint with our choc.”

(Conventional chocolate contributes more than 40 kilograms of greenhouse gases per kilogram; WNWN averages 3.8 kilograms.)

An acronym for “waste not, want not,” WNWN is pronounced “win-win,” according to CEO and co-founder Ahrum Pak, a former banker and management consultant.

Conventional chocolate-making involves fermenting, roasting and blending cocoa beans. WNWN follows a similar process, bypassing the cocoa beans and using cereals and legumes, such as barley and carob. Drain sees the company’s use of traditional fermentation as a differentiator.

While other alternative food startups rely on techniques such as cellular agriculture, which can involve synthetic biology and precision fermentation (using microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast to produce proteins and other compounds), WNWN tapped into the ancient fermentation techniques used to make some of the world’s most-consumed foods and drinks, such as bread, cheese, coffee, beer and wine.

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WNWN’s selling point is that its products are cocoa-free. “In 2022, consumers purchased US$186 billion of chocolate globally, and the market is expected to increase to US$312 billion in 2030. However, current supply chain and production systems cannot accommodate this growth without continued environmental damage and unethical practices,” it notes in a statement. But their alt chocolate is also free from caffeine, dairy and palm oil.

The company says its products work one-for-one in all typical chocolatey applications (and standard manufacturing equipment), from baking to freezing, in foods such as chocolate bars, cookies, drinks and ice cream, and behave “near-identically” to conventional chocolate. As for the taste, the dark version “hits the classic fruity, roasted notes”; the milk “is sweeter and creamier with a buttery finish.”

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