About 20 years ago, chocolate companies have pledged to phase out child labor on cocoa plantations. Fast forward to today, the issue remains widespread across the industry, especially in West Africa, where 70 percent of the world’s cocoa beans are grown. Progress has also been slow in cutting the environmental footprint of cultivating cocoa. Ivory Coast, for instance, has lost more than 80 percent of its tropical forests over the last 50 years, mainly to cocoa production.
But what if we could make our chocolate bars from plants other than cocoa beans? That’s exactly what Germany-based startup QOA ventured to find out, by making cocoa-free chocolate using “precision fermentation” of other ingredients. The ultimate aim is to replace the cocoa used in mass-market products.
Working together with a tiny team of scientists, QOA cofounder Sara Marquart started analyzing the flavor of cocoa. “Pretty much every food has a fingerprint, like a human has a fingerprint, right? It’s very unique,” she says. “We analyze the fingerprint of raw cocoa, fermented cocoa, roasted cocoa, to understand what is making cocoa this unique little bean that has so much flavor?”
The team then conducted the same analysis of byproducts from food production, such as the residues left after pressing sunflower seed to make oil. By fermenting a few of these ingredients, they were able to “extract the building blocks of the flavor,” she says. “And then we reassemble that in a big brewing tank. You can think of it like beer brewing, in a way.” After fermentation, the final product can be roasted and dried like traditional cocoa.
Of course, getting the flavor right hasn’t been an easy task, with early samples being ranked an average 4.9 out of 10 in sample tests. But after reworking the formula those ratings eventually doubled, with chocolate sensory experts even claiming that they couldn’t distinguish between the startup’s version cocoa-free product and conventional chocolate.
The company is now in talks with major chocolate companies to launch its product, as well as getting ready to launch its own brand to help increase awareness about issues like child slavery and environmental degradation in cocoa production. The primary goal is to substitute the cocoa in mass-market candy and other chocolate products and shrink their carbon footprint as a result.