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


U.K.-based food tech start-up WNWN is set to debut ethical cacao-free chocolate thins—and they’re plant-based and palm oil-free.

Chocolate lovers, rejoice! You can now snack on your favorite delectable treat completely guilt-free thanks to one U.K.-based food tech start-up. Called WNWN Food Labs, the company is set to turn the chocolate industry on its head with the debut of its cacao-free chocolate thins, which are low in sugar and caffeine-free.

WNWN will launch the cacao-free chocolates—which are a world-first, according to the company—for a limited time on May 18 via the start-up’s website. The company developed the sweets with an in-house chocolatier. They feature notes of sticky toffee pudding, dates, and cherries. In blind taste tests, when compared with cacao-based dark chocolate, consumers said the products were “very similar,” reports the company.

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

Their price will be on par with traditional chocolates, selling for $12.50 a box. But unlike many conventional chocolates, WNWN’s 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. “All the ingredients we are sourcing are sustainable, organic, and high-quality,” Pak 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,” explained Dr. Johnny Drain, the company’s co-founder and CTO, 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.

WNWN’s co-founder and CEO Ahrum 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 2021 to tackle the sector’s unethical practices and the global food supply chain at large.

WNWN cacao-free chocolate
Coffee, vanilla, and tea are 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 cacao-free thins releases about 80 percent fewer carbon emissions compared to many cacao-based chocolates on the market.

What’s next for WNWN?

WNWN closed a $1 million pre-seed funding round in October 2021. And for a company that’s barely a year old, it’s already scaling quickly.

“We’ve been able to scale rapidly, due in part to the use of widely available ingredients and production methods that don’t require regulatory approval or expensive platforms,” explained Pak. “As the first in the world to have a cacao-free chocolate product for sale, we can now begin building partnerships to supply brands with sustainable, ethically sourced ingredients.” 

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

In addition to pursuing supply relationships, the start-up is looking to expand its range. “We can supply our product in both chocolate mass and cocoa powder form, so that is the ultimate aim,” said Dr. Drain. “Impact only comes with scale.”

WNWN already has cacao-free chocolate bars, including the milk chocolate variety, and bonbons in the works. But the company also wants to tackle other food products, such as coffee, vanilla, and tea, that have unethical and unsustainable production practices, including industries that contribute to global warming and biodiversity loss, pay unfair wages, and have poor working conditions.

But for now, WNWN’s ethical cacao-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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