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A cocao-free, eco-friendly alternative to chocolate is launched in Cambridge

WNWN (Waste Not Want Not) has developed a new type of chocolate – free from cacao, palm oil and added sugars – which had its first tasting session at the Bradfield Centre on Cambridge Science Park recently.

Carbon 13 pitch day at Bradfield Centre on July 28. Picture: Eleanor Navrady
Carbon 13 pitch day at Bradfield Centre on July 28. Picture: Eleanor Navrady

The truffles produced by the founders, Dr Johnny Drain and Ahrum Pak, were made available to the audience following WNWN’s pitch at Carbon13 pitch day. Carbon13 is a new venture which encourages start-ups which will help reduce global CO2 emissions, and WNWN is one of ten companies selected to receive investment and mentoring to scale up. The goal of the programme is “to create scalable ventures with the combined potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 400 million tonnes or 1 per cent of global emissions” every year.

The pitch day saw a variety of sustainable businesses present their business case in front of an audience of investors, colleagues, the curious and other interested parties. The final pitch before lunch was from WNWN: the unlikely pairing of Johnny – the self-professed ‘Willy Wonka of fermentation’ – and former Morgan Stanley management consultant Ahrum came at the same script from different angles.

Johnny is a PhD in Materials Science from the University of Oxford, and “took a leap of faith by leaving academia to work in kitchens”.

As well as his Oxford PhD, Johnny has an MRes in Nanomaterials from Imperial College and an MSci in Chemistry from the University of Bristol. After acquiring the academic qualifications, Johnny left academia to focus on food. He is a leading expert on using fermentation “as a tool to create and amplify sustainability through deliciousness”, and a trusted voice in exploring how what we grow and eat can change the health of the planet.

The two co-founders could not have more different backgrounds – hers Hawaii and California, his in Birmingham – yet together, they have come up with a venture which could shift the chocolate market away from cacao, thanks to their dairy-free, cacao-free formula for chocolate which involves no child labour, no deforestation, 80 per cent less carbon emissions, no palm oil and no added sugar.

Their talk ended with a tasting session for their cacao-free truffles, which are produced with no palm oil, deforestration, CO2 emissions, child slavery or added sugar.

Dr Johnny Drain and Ahrum Pak, co-founders of WNWN Food Labs
Dr Johnny Drain and Ahrum Pak, co-founders of WNWN Food Labs

The truffle was delicious and, during the lunch break, I sought them out and they explained how the taste had been developed.

“I’ve since carved out a niche to become a leading expert on using fermentation as a tool to create and amplify sustainability through deliciousness, and a trusted voice in exploring how what we grow and eat can change the health of the planet via my work with the food/design platform MOLD.”

WNWN’s truffles, given their first public tasting session at the Bradfield Centre, emerged in unlikely fashion.

“I had a Damascene moment while staying at my parents’ house,” Johnny says. “It all started with green potatoes. They had some potatoes in the pantry which had turned green. While they were boiling I stuck my head over the pan and it smelt like chocolate. I thought: ‘Why does chocolate taste like chocolate?’

“So that was a light bulb moment – there must be other stuff in other things too to make the chocolate taste. That was five years ago.”

WNWN Food Labs was incorporated in May this year as a company involved in “cacao and chocolate confectionary”.

The company website reads: “We’re on a mission to save the world through our favourite foods.

“We’re a food company focused on creating a win-win situation for consumers, producers, and the planet.

WNWN Food Labs’ truffles
WNWN Food Labs’ truffles

“We’ve started with chocolate.”

“It’s guilt-free, cacao-free, chocolate,” Johnny adds sitting in the sunshine outside the Bradfield Centre. “Alt-chocolate, created using a proprietary fermentation process involving cereals and grains, in bar or powder form. It can be baked, or melted – as in other chocolate. It’s an alt-diary

alt-protein market for which there is a demonstrable consumer appetite.”

The new method has become possible “because the fermentation and chemistry of chocolate are now better understood”.

He added: “It’s not just chocolate but a transformation in the way the world eats, and what it eats. We’re using the best of the old techniques with cutting-edge technology.”

Ahrum, for her part, was a management consultant and investment banker in New York, and then at Morgan Stanley in London.

“I had a brief stint in venture capital and liked the concept of using my money to finance something for the greater good,” she says. “I was always a fan of food and fermentation, and that’s what led me to Johnny.”

“We’ve learned a lot,” says Ahrum of the Carbon13 experience so far, “and they’ll help us until November.”

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