Tuesday, June 18, 2024

To Make the Most Ethical Chocolate, This Company Leaves the Cocoa Out


UK-based food tech start-up WNWN Food Labs is rapidly expanding after launching the ‘world’s first’ cocoa-free chocolate.

Chocolate lovers can now snack on their favorite treat completely guilt-free thanks to one U.K.-based food tech start-up. Called WNWN Food Labs, the company turned the chocolate industry on its head last year with the launch of the ‘world’s first’ cocoa-free chocolate.

Now, the brand is celebrating Easter with the launch of a cocoa-free chocolate egg. Dubbed the Wegg, the vegan chocolate features a dulce de leche finish and a chocolate-y filling.

That’s not all WNWN has been up to lately. The brand has been busy rapidly expanding—having grown to a team of 14. The company also recently opened a new production space in the Hackney Wick neighborhood of East London.

“This larger site has enabled us to upscale our production by eight times and means we can now house some of our shiny new pieces of chocolate-making equipment,” Dr. Johnny Drain, the company’s co-founder and CTO, told Ethos via email. “It won’t be long until we outgrow this new site!”

WNWN Food Labs

WNWN launched its limited-edition cocoa-free chocolate on May 18 of last year. The sweets, which the company developed with an in-house chocolatier, featured notes of sticky toffee pudding, dates, and cherries. 

“We sold out all of the limited edition releases we did,” Dr. Drain said. “Since then, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing and there’s a lot of excitement around our next — very, very big — release! More details on that soon! There’s been a lot of intrigue and appetite out there for our chocolate.”

The cacao-free thins are produced using a special proprietary process that combines ethically sourced plant-based ingredients like British barley and carob with traditional fermentation techniques.

WNWN Food Labs founders
Co-founders Dr. Johnny Drain and Ahrum Pak created WNWN to tackle the cacao industry’s unethical practices. | Caitlin Isola/WNWN Food Labs

“All the ingredients we are sourcing are sustainable, organic, and high-quality,” Ahrum Pak, WNWN’s CEO, explained in an interview with Food Navigator. “We’ve gone to several lengths to ensure our supply is too.” The end result? Dark chocolate that “tastes, melts, snaps, and bakes” just like its cacao butter-based counterparts.

“Using fermentation we’re able to create a suite of the same flavor compounds found in cacao,” Dr. Drain said in a press release. “We can dial up certain aromas and even adjust the acidity to bring out notes found in premium single-origin chocolates.” 

The dark side of the chocolate industry

About 4.7 million tons of cacao beans are produced each year around the world, according to market research firm Statista. The global cacao market was valued at an estimated $12.4 billion in 2020 and is expected to hit $14.6 billion by 2027.

Although the chocolate trade is booming, it’s rife with human rights violations, including child and slave labor, and environmental degradation in the form of greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation, similar to issues plaguing mining and palm oil.

Pak, a former investment banker and fermentation enthusiast, and Dr. Drain, a food consultant with a Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Oxford, founded the company in 2020 to tackle the sector’s unethical practices and the global food supply chain at large.

WNWN cacao-free chocolate
Coffee, vanilla, and tea may be up next for WNWN. | WNWN Food Labs

According to a 2016 report by the Forestry Commission of Ghana, the West African country has lost 80 percent of its forest cover in the last six decades. A third of this can be directly attributed to the production of cacao.

“Chocolate has a truly dark side with more than a million child laborers estimated to work in Ivory Coast and Ghana, where three-quarters of the world’s cacao is grown, and more carbon dioxide emissions pound for pound than cheese, lamb or chicken,” explained Dr. Drain. 

In addition to not relying on child and slave labor and being palm oil-free, a driving force in deforestation, the production of WNWN’s cocoa-free chocolates releases about 80 percent fewer carbon emissions compared to other conventional chocolates on the market.

What’s next for WNWN?

In February, WNWN closed a whopping $5.6 million in its second round of funding. For a company that’s barely three years old, it’s certainly scaling quickly.

“There’s a lot going on currently, and we can’t wait to share more plans with you,” said Dr. Drain. “At the moment, we have one live collaboration with none other than a bar in London, Lyaness, that won “Best Bar in the World” last year. They’ve used our choc in one of their award-winning cocktails.”

Although the company’s lips are sealed as to what’s coming down the pipeline, WNWN has previously hinted at expanding its range to include coffee, vanilla, and tea.

cacao-free chocolates
WNWN’s cacao-free chocolate thins are palm oil-free. | WNWN Food Labs

For now, WNWN’s ethical cocoa-free chocolate is certainly proving to be… a win-win. Even for furry, four-legged companions, according to the company. “Your doggo can eat our chocolate,” Dr. Drain told Food Navigator. “We’ve tested it on some dogs… and they absolutely go wild for it.”

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