Silicon Valley Is Coming for Your Chocolate

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The decadent smell of chocolate wafted my way. I approached the table in front of me, and a chef with a bushy mustache handed me a thimble of hot cocoa. I tipped it back, swirled the liquid around in my mouth, and swallowed: creamy and sweet. Next, a guy wearing a hat gave me a confection coated in chocolate. As I chewed, it melted in my mouth.

This was no candy factory. It was the basement of IndieBio, a synthetic-biology accelerator in San Francisco. Around me were booths offering vegan oils to replace bacon fat and chickpea-protein “chicken” legs that you held by the bone, which was a stick. None of the chocolate I had eaten was chocolate at all: It was produced in a lab by scientists at California Cultured, a start-up based in Davis, California.

What I tossed back in moments had taken a team of seven about 10 months to produce, Alan Perlstein, the company’s CEO, told me. To make it, the scientists isolated individual cells from cacao plants and fed them nutrients. When the team had at least a couple hundred grams, it treated the mass like typical cocoa beans. The cells were fermented, roasted, and ground into chocolate. When added to cookies or candy, the end result tastes pretty close to the real deal, because, Perlstein said, “most of cocoa flavors come from how they’re processed.”

A similar approach is behind lab-made meat, which is lifting off the pages of sci-fi novels and may one day make its way into our homes. Yes, you can already buy plant-based burgers, but more than 70 start-ups are working on “cultured” meat, which involves taking cells from living animals—who get to continue living—and then growing them in lablike conditions until they are ready to be formed into a steak, chop, cutlet, or anything else. The point behind these products is obvious: You can continue eating meat, red meat in particular, without the downsides for both the environment and suffering animals.

But … chocolate? Chocolate isn’t life-sustaining, our supply isn’t currently running out, and if we’re splitting hairs, it’s already plant-based. California Cultured and a crop of other food-tech start-ups believe that there will soon come a moment when we need to add chocolate to our mental load of food dilemmas. They point to disease, deforestation, continued child-labor issues, and unpredictable cocoa yields. If these companies are right—still a big if—they suggest a strange, maybe even unsettling future: One day, will all of our favorite foods begin in a petri dish?

Perlstein is obsessed with chocolate. Before founding California Cultured in 2020, he started another food company aimed at discovering novel sweeteners that might be used in chocolate. “I’m always looking for chocolate that can change the way you physically feel,” he said. But in past work trips to Ghana, he learned of the challenges. “Farmers always brought up droughts, floods, and [other] issues growing chocolate,” he said.

Diptych of a person handling tissue culture and a cocoa seedling.
Left: A California Cultured scientist selects immature cocoa cells to be screened for their growth potential. Right: A cocoa seedling grown under LED lights. (California Cultured)

He’s not wrong: Cocoa is built on a fragile supply chain, though one that seems to be holding up for now. Most cocoa is grown in rainy equatorial countries in Africa and South and Central America, and climate change is already messing with crop yields. The global demand for chocolate keeps rising, so to keep up, farmers are clearing even more forests to grow cocoa. And while the average price for a single ton of cocoa is $2,600, most farmers do not earn a living wage, leading to a reliance on child labor.

“Cacao is in danger,” Howard-Yana Shapiro, a senior fellow at UC Davis’s Agricultural Sustainability Institute and an adviser to the manufacturer Mars, told me. “Everything is wrong with the production system: low productivity. Low prices. Lack of environmental stewardship. Ten years out is not a pretty picture without major restoration and building a resilient supply chain.”

With all these pressures, California Cultured hopes that it can swoop in and supply the world with a steady stream of dirt-cheap “chocolate.” To grow cacao cells in its lab, Perlstein said, California Cultured adds in plant hormones that are found in foods such as tomatoes, potatoes, and coconuts. The cells are then grown, matured, and placed in a bioreactor, a big steel tank with knobs and valves.

The start-up still has a long way to go to make its vision a reality. The chocolate I tried was fairly convincing, but it can’t be purchased yet. “If everything works according to plan, it will take around four years to make a bar of chocolate that convinces me,” Perlstein said. So far, the company has only rough prototypes of milk chocolate, which requires a much simpler taste profile than dark chocolate.

Other chocolate start-ups are doing the same: aiming to replace some of the cheapest, mass-produced chocolate around. “Bulk” chocolate, the stuff that’s used in candies such as M&Ms, Kit Kats, and Snickers, is a far bigger market than craft chocolate in terms of dollars, and you need very little of it to create a tasty treat. A product needs just 10 percent cocoa to be called  “chocolate” by the FDA. Using a lab-made alternative in a candy near that threshold might be undetectable, even by the very best palates.

In less than a year, QOA—a start-up founded by the siblings Sara and Max Marquart—has engineered a close approximation of cocoa by fermenting a mix of common ingredients. The Marquarts’ first version used apricot kernels, Max told me. QOA whipped up bonbons and shipped them to 100 people, asking them to rate the dessert out of 10. The average came in at an uninspired 4.5. A chocolatier who tried the candies said she brushed her teeth five times and still couldn’t get rid of the taste. QOA shifted to oat spelts, a by-product from making oat milk. When I finally received samples—“chocolate” bonbons filled with passion fruit, hazelnuts, and pumpkin seeds—I never once sensed that I was eating anything other than a milk-chocolate candy.

QOA’s goal is to sell its cocoa-like ingredient to other manufacturers for 20 percent less than the real thing, Max said. The long-term aspiration is to be in every M&M—hundreds of millions are produced every day.

Hershey’s came up often in my conversations. Voyage Foods, based in Oakland, California, also wants to match the bar in flavor and cost. Since a Hershey’s bar can retail for under $1, this won’t be easy. Voyage’s bar, made primarily of upcycled grape seeds, will initially cost about $2 when it hits shelves later this year. “We’re trying to reimagine the potential of nature,” the company’s founder, Adam Maxwell, said as he handed me a gold-foil-wrapped bar. Visually, it was perfect. The flavor was … different. It was floral in a way I wasn’t expecting, but if I didn’t know more, I might simply have thought it was creative license. Eventually, Voyage hopes to land in mighty retailers such as Target and Walmart.

At this point, lab-made chocolate is still out there in the land of maybe. And despite what these start-ups say, fake chocolate isn’t necessarily our destiny. Several experts told me that we have the solutions to fix chocolate without going the lab-made route. For disease and yield problems, scientists are working to create more tolerant varieties using CRISPR. Mark Guiltinan, a molecular biologist at Penn State and an expert on cacao genetics, has several improved plants from this technology, though none has made it to field trials yet. Guiltinan also doubts whether we can truly make chocolate in a lab. “We only know the tip of the iceberg for flavor,” he told me. “We see thousands of molecules on the tiny tip of a cacao plant. It’s mind-bogglingly complex, and we don’t have the knowledge to reproduce that and make it taste good.”

Chocolate confections set after tempering.
After growing cocoa in a lab, California Cultured turns it into a chocolate-coated confection. (California Cultured)

Nevertheless, the lab-made industry seems hell-bent on making us rethink the food we eat. In addition to meat and chocolate labs, there are start-ups creating honey without bees, coffee without beans, and peanut butter without peanuts. You’ll be able to buy that one from Voyage in the next few months. Its “peanut butter” spread is quite good, and it means your kids can hop on the school bus with a sandwich nearly identical to a PB&J without fear of a classmate’s peanut allergy.

In some form or another, lab-made foods are likely here to stay. And while they may let us continue eating and drinking the foods we love, they come at a cost. If we live in a world populated with analogues perfected in a lab, based on decisions made by a few, where is the joy of eating something unpredictable in a way that only nature can provide? While drying methods and styles of fermentation affect how chocolate ultimately tastes, every bean and every geographical location produces different results.

“I don’t want to live in a world where everything is made in the same way because it’s been optimized for the same variables in a global system that doesn’t allow for variability,” Alan Levinovitz, a religion professor at James Madison University who writes about how people decide what to eat, told me. “Are we monoculturing our world, whether it’s the cocoa on our shelves or the meat on our plate?”

Is this where we’re headed: lab-made bad, nature good? Are we at an inflection point where we have to begin changing everything on our plate? For now, we have time to consider these new methods and accept that the chocolate we know may soon be the chocolate we don’t. Along with every other thing we hold dear.

Go to Publisher: Technology | The Atlantic
Author: Larissa Zimberoff