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Product, Service & Design Innovation
This Cacao-Free Chocolate Startup Is Ready to Show ‘Big Chocolate’ a Sustainable Way Forward

“Our alternative chocolate is saying that this industry can function in a different way — and it doesn’t have to be stuck doing things it has been doing for 60 years, making billions of dollars a year off the hard work of farmers in West Africa.” — WNWN co-founder Johnny Drain

The social and environmental challenges associated with producing chocolate are well-documented. Most of the chocolate (around 75 percent) enjoyed worldwide originates from cacao trees grown in Ghana or Cote d’Ivoire — two countries that have had “some of the worst rates of intensification of deforestation in the world, for decades,” according to Mighty Earth. Côte d’Ivoire has lost up to 90 percent of its forest cover, with a third said to be down to cocoa as farmers clear tropical forests to make way for new cocoa trees.

In addition to rampant deforestation, West African farmers commonly make use of child labor — with family-run farms exposing children to working with dangerous tools and harmful pesticides. Earlier this year, a TV documentary found children as young as 10 were harvesting cocoa in Ghana to be supplied to one of the world’s biggest chocolate firms, Mondelēz International — which owns Cadbury. A recent survey found that of the children living in agricultural households in cocoa-growing areas within the two nations, 45 percent are engaged in child labor.

The problem is, we love the stuff. We have done so ever since early North American settlers began cultivating the cocoa tree for its bitter beans 2,000 years ago. During Valentine’s week in the US, people eat 58 million pounds of chocolate. As our love for chocolate grows, so does the pressure on the environment and the impact on societies.

But what if there was a way of sating our appetite for chocolate without growing a single cacao tree? What if chocolate could be produced without disrupting increasingly vulnerable supply chains, ecosystems and communities?

Well, it can.

Step forward, WNWN Food Labs (pronounced ‘win-win’), a new food startup (launched during the pandemic) that is making chocolate-free chocolate.

“It tastes like chocolate, it melts, snaps and even bakes like chocolate. But we use absolutely no cacao,” co-founder Johnny Drain tells Sustainable Brands® from his kitchen-come-laboratory in London. “The way cocoa beans have been fermented and roasted has been refined over hundreds and hundreds of years to come up with this delicious stuff we call chocolate. But when I put my chemist hat on, I asked myself, ‘Why can’t you end up with that same flavor profile, but just start with something different’?”

It is a question Drain has continued to ask himself since graduating with a PhD in material science and a career spent in kitchens “fermenting things for chefs, setting up R&D and developing new products.” As his starting point for WNWN’s first product, he landed on British barley and Italian carob — the latter of which comes from a pod of a tree of the same name and is rich in polyphenol antioxidants, just like cacao.

“Taking these two very European ingredients, we figured out this funky, high-science way to ferment and process them so that we end up with flavor compounds that you also have in a chocolate.” The cacao-free chocolate contains no added sugar (only what is produced naturally during the fermentation process) and no dairy (although Drain says they could make a non-vegan version by adding dairy). WNWN says its chocolate is also 85 percent less carbon-emitting than conventional chocolate.

Drain’s company was born after ex-investment banker Ahrum Pak slid into Drain’s DMs after a mutual connection introduced the pair via Instagram. Reporting from her base in Portugal, Pak says that she was happy to “escape the evil clutches” of the investment world with ambitions to build a business related to food: “I always wanted to work in a company that could potentially change industries or people’s mindsets.”

She’s been doing exactly that with Drain since the pandemic hit. Drain explains the pair started thinking about businesses around using food waste and fermentation: “I trusted Ahrum and realized that we would make a great team. I’d had this idea about developing chocolate without chocolate for a little while; so, we both got very excited about it and ditched our other ideas.”

So, what’s the ambition for WNWN? Well, there’s a number of other companies doing something similar, but Drain and Pak are the first to bring a cacao-free chocolate product to market. It launched in May and sold out within a day, with customers stating they would never have known they weren’t eating a real chocolate bar.

“Ultimately, we want to produce a whole range of different chocolates — a really milk chocolate, a flavored bar … and we can control the flavor profiles with the fermentation and processing that we do,” Drains says excitedly.

He also acknowledges the limitations of their venture in changing current growing strategies and buying habits of what he calls the “Big Chocolate” sector.

“Even if we grab 1 percent of what is a huge market, we wouldn’t be able to impact the day-to-day functioning of cocoa farms,” he says. However, WNWN wants to raise public awareness and shine a light on what’s happening in the sector. “Our alternative chocolate is saying that this industry can function in a different way — and it doesn’t have to be stuck doing things it has been doing for 60 years, making billions of dollars a year off the hard work of farmers in West Africa.”

“We’re not anti-Big Chocolate. We just really want chocolate to be given the respect it deserves,” Pak adds.