Financial basis

Foodtech start-ups push ethical coffee and chocolate

First it was dairy free milk, then meatless burgers. Today, entrepreneurs and investors hope to create a market for grain-free chocolate and coffee.

Like dairy and meat alternatives, the new products aspire to be better for the planet while addressing social issues related to industries that affect some of the world’s poorest communities.

The cultivation of cocoa and coffee is linked to deforestation, with the clearing of forest land reducing the planet’s stock of trees and its ability to absorb carbon dioxide. The chocolate industry has long been plagued by the use of child labor in cocoa farming, mainly in Africa, while many coffee farmers struggle to make ends meet.

“You realize that a lot of our favorite foods, whether it’s beef burgers or a coffee cult or a candy bar, there’s so much mess,” Johnny Drain said, chief technology officer of WnWn, a London-based manufacturer of cocoa-free products. Chocolate. “Not just for the climate, but for the people, usually in developing countries, who produce these products for us.”

Co-founded by Drain and Ahrum Pak, a financier turned foodtech entrepreneur, WnWn’s key ingredients for its chocolate are fermented barley and carob, the powdered pods of which are used as an alternative to cocoa powder in the south. from Europe.

Drain, who holds a doctorate in materials science, has worked with top European chefs to create taste profiles of foods using fermentation technology.

WnWn co-founders Johnny Drain and Ahrum Pak. Drain has worked with top chefs to create food taste profiles using fermentation technology © Caitlin Isola Caprio

Other start-ups branching out into beanless chocolate include US companies Voyage Foods and California Cultured, whose chocolate is made from lab-grown cocoa.

In Munich, scientists brothers Maximilian and Sara Marquart have developed a cocoa-free chocolate that contains main ingredients of fermented oats and sugar beets.

“Our main goal is to [cut] CO₂ [emissions]said Maximilian, co-founder and chief executive of their company, Planet A. He says test tastings have shown that products similar to a Snickers bar using the company’s ‘Nocoa’ show consumers can’t tell the difference between real chocolate and its not. – bean version.

Marquart said Planet A is looking to become an ingredients company supplying food manufacturers and offering tastings of its cocoa-free chocolate ice cream in Europe.

However, while he said the start-up was making progress in developing candy bar products, he acknowledged that its products were not yet “at the level” of Godiva or Lindt.

Bean-free coffee is also on the menu at startups like Seattle-based Atomo and San Francisco-based Compound Foods, which recreates coffee using synthetic biology and fermentation.

Andy Kleitsch, co-founder and chief executive of Atomo, said he chose his product after talking to entrepreneurs and scientists as he researched the best idea for the planet.

Atomo uses date seeds, chicory root and grape skin, as well as caffeine from green tea, to create its canned “cold brew coffee”.

As climate change hits regions where coffee is traditionally grown, growers have moved to the mountainsides in search of cooler climates. “Coffee has a huge deforestation footprint,” said Kleitsch, a former software engineer.

Launched in 2018, the startup raised $40 million in June, helping it break into consumer markets as well as new product development and increase manufacturing capacity. Online reviews range from those who can’t tell the difference from regular cold brew coffee to others who have described the product as “syrupy” and “sickening.”

“We want to give consumers a choice,” said Kleitsch, who added that while they were concerned that “the coffee industry hates us or the baristas hate us, the reception has been positive.”

Assessments by CarbonCloud, a climate change research group that calculates the environmental impact of food, show Planet A chocolate has 10% of the emissions impact of the conventional product, while the figure for coffee of Atomo is only 7%. The WnWn score is 20%, on a self-assessment basis.

Some investors are cautiously optimistic about the nascent field. Cocoa and coffee are both grown in countries vulnerable to climate change and food makers facing supply chain shortages could drive demand for the products, according to the venture capital firm’s Niccolo Manzoni. food and agrotechnology Five Seasons.

However, this will depend on the type of ingredients needed to create the products. “Often it’s a mixture of multiple ingredients through a fermentation process, so they actually lengthen the supply chain instead of shorten it,” he warned.

There are others who are skeptical of consumer demand. “They’re putting a new mark on something people have been doing for decades. They affix the sustainability label to mainly processed foods. It doesn’t work for me,” said Arlin Wasserman of food strategy consultancy Changing Tastes.

“Producing food is the biggest source of employment in the world and is the basis of culture,” he added. “I’m not convinced that environmental concerns can drive purchases.”

WnWn’s Drain agrees that consumers react negatively to highly processed protein alternatives, including fake meat and dairy, and to the “disappointing” taste and texture of many products. He said his start-up takes a holistic approach, using whole ingredients and traditional techniques to make fermented products such as cheese, bread and beer.

“We’re not saying what we’re doing is the only solution,” he said. “It’s just one more way of trying to change an industry that is built on inequality and slave labor.”