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Chocolate needs to change and WNWN has $5.6 million to make it green with... fermented barley

two hands pull open a bonbon with caramel in the center
WNWN caramel-filled chocolate bonbon // Photo courtesy of WNWN

The cocoa industry has a choco-lot of problems, and with the European Union’s groundbreaking ban on products associated with deforestation, like cocoa, soy, palm oil, and dairy, European companies are rushing to green their supply chains and clean up their acts.

Europe is the world’s largest chocolate market and in 2021, the continent accounted for about 76% of global chocolate sales value. As chocolate companies will have to ensure their coveted cocoa beans don’t come at the expense of habitats, significant forests, and biodiversity, one European startup is asking: what if we do away with the cocoa in chocolate all together?

According to London-based WNWN Food Labs (pronounced ‘win-win’) they’re the first company to bring cocao-free chocolate to market. The secret sauce is in fermentation, a process that converts sustainable ingredients like British barley, used for centuries in beer and whisky, and carob into what the company calls “choc,” a premium chocolate they say “looks, smells, tastes, melts, snaps, and bakes like the real thing.”

four of the brands bars are stacked on top of each other with one open and filled with what looks like caramel and nuts
WNWN's Waim! Bar // Photo courtesy of WNWN

Covering all their deforestation bases, the product is also dairy-free, palm-oil free, caffeine-free, and gluten-free, which is vital as the EU law even opens up the way for technology like satellite monitoring and DNA analysis to ensure products’ supply chains are deforestation-free in every way possible.

Launched in 2020, by cofounders Ahrum Pak and Johnny Drain, WNWN raised a sweet Series A funding round $5.6 million last month from Geschwister Oetker, FoodLabs, HackCapital, Investbridge AgriTech, MSM, PeakBridge, and PINC.

According to Greenbiz, Pak, who is Korean, got the idea for using fermentation to create an alternative chocolate from the fermented kimchi, kkakdugi, fish sauce, gochujang, and doenjang she grew up around. All of this fermentation knowledge came in candy, and as a financier and advisor, Pak partnered with fermentation expert and materials scientist Dr. Johnny Drain, to combine traditional practices with cutting-edge food tech, and thus WNWN Food Labs was born.

There are plenty of vegan chocolates already on the market, with Hershey’s recently joining the club with its first vegan Reese’s peanut butter cups and “extra creamy almond and sea salt” chocolate bars.”

Cocoa is naturally “plant based,” but both of Hershey’s new chocolate products are advertised as such because they use dairy-free milk as opposed to cow milk, a central ingredient to their iconic candy.

However, when products like cocoa and milk alternative ingredients like almonds, soy, and even in some cases, oats, can be linked to deforestation, vegan chocolate is only truly beneficial for the planet if the supply chains aren’t associated with habitat destruction.

So, WNWN took the prospect of deforestation completely out of the supply chain by fermenting barley and carob. In traditional chocolate making, cacao beans are fermented and roasted to bring out their full flavor, before sweetened with sugar. According to Fast Company climate tech writer Adele Peters, it tastes just like a blend of chocolate and hazelnuts.

But why would this British startup want to change what makes chocolate… chocolate?

Well, chocolate has a lot of fudging problems.

As the World Wildlife Foundation reports, cocoa farmers usually clear tropical forests to plant new cocoa trees rather than reusing the same land, which has spurred massive deforestation in West Africa. Just two countries, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire, produce 75% of the world’s chocolate, and over the past 60 years, the two have lost 80% and 94% of forest cover respectively.

According to WWF, the culprit of 70% of it is chocolate.

melted chocolate flows from a candy mold
Photo courtesy of WNWN

As WNWN puts it, this deforestation is occurring at the hands of “Big Chocolate,” a handful of multinational corporations that, similar to Big Oil, Big Pharma, and Big Tobacco, control the chocolate industry.

Plus, the global demand for chocolate is rising. Between 2018 and 2021, premium chocolate sales grew by 23% according to a report by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. As the demand rises, the growth rate of cocoa stays the same. WWF reports it takes an entire year for a cocoa tree to produce the cocoa needed for just half a pound of chocolate. That’s just about 17 of Hershey’s fun-size bars.

Moreover, climate change, rising temperatures, and diminishing rainfall will likely lead to the cacao crop undergoing extreme shortages in the future. In fact, by 2050, a Harvard analysis shows almost 33% of cocoa trees as expected to die out worldwide.

“We need to come up with new alternatives in order to continue eating chocolate the way that we do,” WNWN CEO Ahrum Pak said via Fast Company.

Some Big Chocolate brands are attempting to account for their faults. Mars, for example, plans to reduce its supply chain greenhouse gas emissions by 27% over the next two years and and by 2025, source 100% of their cocoa from their Responsible Cocoa program.

Ideally, this will achieve a deforestation-free supply chain as defined by the Accountability Framework Initiative, a sustainability framework made by a coalition of leading environmental organizations aiming to make ethical supply chains “the new normal.”

But 2025 is just around the corner, and time will tell if they achieve this goal. Like every other company, Mars also plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, but in the face of climate change, increased demand, and deforestation, WNWN’s alt-chocolate comes out the gate (or wrapper) producing 80% less carbon and uses 90% less water than conventional chocolates.

a pile of brown "cocoa" powder on a plate
WNWN Food Labs Cacao-free Cocao Powder // Photo courtesy of WNWN

This is crucial when the traditional supply chain of the fan favorite dark chocolate produces more CO2 emissions than lamb, coffee, cheese, pork, and even dairy.

If the deforestation and emission issues associated with chocolate doesn’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth, the founders of WNWN also point to unethical labor practices as a “dark side” of Big Chocolate. “Millions of small farmers each earn less than $1 per day, living in extreme poverty, to serve the demands of Big Chocolate,” WNWN says on their website.

With miniscule compensation, the industry is rife with slave labor and child labor, with the U.S. government estimating that more than two million children work in these farms in Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire.

All of the concerns associated with Big Chocolate have led to 57% of consumers preferring Fair Trade certified chocolate. But the issues with Big Chocolate aren’t happening at the handcrafted ma-and-pop candy shop. They’re happening on the backend of bars costing one or two bucks in the supermarket.

“So that’s the benchmark,” Johnny Drain said via Fast Company, “The horrors around cocoa have happened not in the high-end bean-to-bar craft chocolate world, but they happen in mass-market chocolate.”

That’s where we want to relieve the pressure points in the chocolate and cocoa supply chain.”

WNWN is seeing success. Their initial batches immediately sold out the publication Tech EU reports, and according to Pak, the investment is “very timely” given the EU’s new ban.

two hands break apart a chocolate bar that has a pattern of octogons
WNWN Cacao-Free Dark-Milk Chocolate // Photo courtesy of WNWN

“WNWN can reduce the cocoa supply chain's strain on the planet and on cocoa farmers entrenched in poverty,” she said. This social justice mission is why the company is looking into ingredients that could be grown sustainably in regions that currently grow cacao, offering farmers a chance to potentially make a better living.

But for now, the funding from the round will be used so WNWN can build its own R&D facility, hire more staff, and prepare for its first full product launch later this year in the U.K. Ultimately, they believe they can reach price parity with mass-market chocolate manufacturers.

“That’s why we’ve chosen the ingredients that we [use], and why we pursued the type of fermentation that we do as well—because it’s always about scalability and with price in mind,” Pak said.

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