March, 2024

Get Ready For Cocoa-Free Chocolate Alternatives

Chocolate is a global industry worth some 130 billion US dollars, and is founded on one main plant species: Theobroma cacao, commonly known as cocoa. Cocoa-based products are widely consumed throughout the world, appreciated by different cultures and used in numerous products and recipes. Most of the chocolate we consume comes mainly from two areas of Western Africa, the Ivory Coast and Ghana, which together account for around 70% of the global production of cocoa beans, with exports totalling 3.6 billion US dollars and 1.9 billion US dollars respectively (World Economic Forum,2020). The Netherlands are the world’s main importer and converter of cocoa beans, processing around 600,000 tons per year and transforming the beans into semi-finished products such as cocoa powder. Belgium, on the other hand, is renowned as the largest producer of chocolate and finished products such as chocolates (pralines), chocolate bars, and chocolate desserts and sweets.

The chocolate industry is driven and influenced by numerous trends, including growing attention towards topics such as sustainability, ethics, the environment, and nutrition. According to the report issued by cocoa giant Barry Callebaut, there is a constantly growing demand for products made with plant-based chocolate (41%) or products made with sustainable ingredients and processes (68%). The rise in awareness on environmental and social issues is prompting consumers to question the origin of the products they buy as well as the environmental and social costs associated with their production. At global level, 69% of consumers say they would like more information on the origin of the ingredients used in chocolate, which has one of the most environmentally, socially and ethically ‘expensive’ supply chains in the world.

The dark side of the chocolate industry

The supply chain of the cocoa industry is complex and has over the years developed more and more, generating various environmental, social, and economic issues. First of all, the global demand for cocoa is met almost entirely by the Ivory Coast and Ghana, which means the supply chain is strongly dependent on these two countries and, consequently, highly vulnerable. The cacao tree only grows in tropical regions near the equator, in very warm, humid climates that are not exposed to frequent and sudden changes in temperature. To cope with increasing global demand, crop growers have had to deforest large areas of tropical forests to plant new trees, resulting in significant deforestation (around 70%) in West Africa with negative impacts on the environment in terms of biodiversity and preservation (World Economic Forum, 2020). In addition to this, the cocoa industry is also associated with child labour, because in order to keep up with global demand, cocoa farmers resort to using children for the cultivation, harvesting, and transportation of cocoa beans. Farmers are among the lowest earners in the cocoa industry, with only 6.6% of the final sales proceeds. However, given the growing awareness among consumers of the hidden costs of the cocoa industry, several organisations, such as UTZ Certified, Rainforest Alliance, and Fairtrade, are working on the traceability of the cocoa supply chain, certifying cocoa from companies that adopt sustainable practices and ban child labour.

Today, yet another problem is taking its toll on this already fragmented industry: heavy rains and the spread of the black pod fungus disease have decimated the cocoa crop in West Africa, leading to a rise in prices (around 65% more according to a report by CoBank), which makes the supply chain even more fragile.

Next gen cocoa-free chocolate

In view of the many problems facing the cocoa supply chain, it is hardly surprising to see an upsurge of various innovative start-ups engaged in the development of alternatives to this crop. Although the sector is still emerging, there is an astounding wealth of alternative products being proposed that offer positive aspects of sustainable production and sourcing, nutritional aspects and, last but not least, are potentially price-competitive with cocoa.

Start-ups in the sector include those using new processing methods for the production of alternatives to cocoa through traditional fermentation, and those using cell cultures, a technology that is now also widely used in the sector of plant-based meat. Two examples are Foreverland and WNWN Foods, which use plant-based mixtures, such as carob and oats. Similar to the traditional method of producing cocoa, these are left to ferment, which results in a paste that can be used to make bars or pralines. On the other hand, companies such as California Cultured or Celleste bio use plant cell culture technology to produce ingredients with identical characteristics to conventional cocoa products, respectively cocoa powder (California Cultured) and cocoa butter (Celleste Bio). Both of these lines of development for cocoa alternatives look promising as innovative ingredients to revolutionise this industry, offering more sustainable products with positive environmental and ethical impacts, while at the same time maintaining a superior level of taste and nutritional value.