The wiring in your brain compels you to enjoy chocolate. Compounds in the food trigger the release of endorphins and dopamine, heightening the pleasure you feel as a decadent truffle melts luxuriously on your tongue. And chocolate may benefit more than just your mood; it’s also a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants associated with decreased risk of heart disease and lower odds of depression. It’s no wonder the key ingredient in chocolate—the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree—is often referred to as a superfood. However, the processed bars, balls, chips, and chunks that line the shelves of your local grocery store only utilize a portion of each fruit: the seeds, or beans. Now, a growing number of entrepreneurial ventures are taking steps to change that.
When it comes to cacao fruit, most chocolate manufacturers are only interested in the few dozen seeds nestled inside. These seeds, which make up around 30 percent of the fruit’s total mass, undergo a process that includes fermenting, drying, and roasting, before they are conched smooth and combined with sugar and emulsifiers to become the chocolate we know and love. Other components of the fruit, like the thick outer husk or the sticky white pulp that coats the beans, have uses in different stages of the chocolate-making process. Husks can be “spread back into the farm as compost, serving as organic nutrients for the soil,” explains Belizean chocolate maker Luis Armando Choco, while the sugary pulp helps kickstart the seeds’ fermentation. And yet, chocolate manufacturers largely consider any portion of the cacao fruit other than the beans to be leftover byproducts, which means much of those parts may go to waste.
This doesn’t have to be the case: in countries like Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia, locals might use cacao pulp to make treats ranging from juice and jam to ice cream and fruit leather. In Belize, where Mayan people have been consuming cacao beverages since as early as 600 BCE, excess pulp that seeps away during the fermentation process gets collected and upcycled into cacao vinegar and even wine, says Choco, a member of the Kekchi Maya community in Belize. He points out that the roasted beans’ outer shells can also be upcycled to brew a chocolatey, antioxidant-rich tea—a product some chocolate makers have begun selling not only in Belize but also Thailand and Ecuador.
Potential uses for whole cacao extend beyond its edibility, as legendary Japanese confectionery brand Meiji—which sources from countries including Ghana, Venezuela, Peru, Vietnam, and Madagascar—hopes to prove. According to company spokesperson Akie Harada, researchers are developing coasters, vases, and other tableware made from cacao husks, which are kneaded into bioplastic and shaped with the help of 3D printing. In Côte d'Ivoire, the world’s largest producer of cacao, a new biomass plant may soon even generate electricity by burning the waste created during cacao production, BBC reports.
Longtime chocolatier Oded Brenner saw firsthand the untapped edible potential in the crop when he traveled to a handful of cacao-growing communities in Central and South America. Brenner is one half of the founding duo behind Max Brenner, a retail brand and restaurant chain known for its chocolate-based confections. After a years-long legal battle and bitter split with the company, he traveled to some of the communities that cultivate the key ingredient for the world’s favorite decadent sweet. “I was not aware of the endless culinary treasures that are hidden in the fruit,” admits Brenner, who previously bought ready-made chocolate directly from manufacturers like Barry Callebaut. Though most chocolate manufacturers only prize the beans, “the rest are incredible culinary ingredients,” he realized.
However, depending on the community, “there may not be that knowledge or local interest in using all of it,” notes Kerry Daroci, the cocoa sector lead for the Rainforest Alliance, a non-profit promoting sustainability in agricultural supply chains. Moreover, because the nutrient-dense fruit’s versatility is largely unknown to consumers outside of countries that cultivate it, there currently isn’t enough global demand to generate significant additional income for growers.
Applying his newfound inspiration from the cacao-growing regions he visited, Brenner decided to wade back into the packaged foods industry once more. The chocolatier’s new company Blue Stripes focuses on making edible use of the entire cacao fruit. The pulp is upcycled in multiple ways: It’s dried to make a chewy snack similar to fruit leather, a treat Brenner encountered in Ecuador and likens to gummy bears. The juice left behind after the beans ferment is cold-pressed to produce an electrolyte-rich water, which is then flavored with fruits like mango, passionfruit, and lime. The juice is even turned into a syrup that’s used to sweeten other products, like chocolate bars.
The fruit’s hard outer husk comes in handy, too. It’s ground into a fine flour, then incorporated into everything from Blue Stripes’ trail mix to granola. “There's no reason in the world why chocolate companies shouldn’t add even 2 or 3 percent cacao shell flour to their bars,” says Brenner. He explains that the small addition may not have a strong impact on flavor but that it can fortify foods with a natural dose of dietary fiber, nutrients, and stimulants—all compounds that have helped establish chocolate’s reputation as a superfood.
Products like WholeFruit Chocolate, an offering from Barry Callebaut made purely from various components of the cacao fruit and no additional ingredients; Capao, snack bites that combine the pulp with nuts and seeds; and Pacha de Cacao, a company turning pulp sourced from farms in Ecuador into bottled juice, are also aiming to position cacao as a highly nutritious ingredient that warrants consumers’ attention. Swiss brand Nestlé has developed a patented process for turning cacao pulp into powder, and released a KitKit bar in Japan that contains no added sugar.
Beyond minimizing waste, there are additional ecological motivations to make use of the whole cacao fruit. Excess biomass, particularly from the pulp, that gets left behind on the plantations “can become an environmental hazard as it ferments, contaminating land and waterways. If not used, the juice needs to be collected and stored safely until it can be removed and disposed of properly,” explains Jacob Lopata, co-founder and CEO of Xoca, the company behind a sweet, tangy prebiotic soda made from juice generated during cacao fermentation. Two of Xoca’s founders are chocolate makers in Ecuador who began experimenting with the juice after realizing how much of the byproduct was going to waste.
Efforts by commercial brands to make use of the entire cacao fruit—whether motivated by genuine commitment to sustainability, potential profits, or corporate reputation—won’t solve all the ongoing problems in an industry marred by climate change concerns, deforestation, and child labor and slavery issues. (The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 1.56 million children are victims of child labor in the cacao industries of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Nestlé and Cargill could not be sued for child slavery that occurred on the African farms from which they source ingredients. EarthRights International, a non-profit focused on legal advocacy for social and environmental justice, called the decision “a giant step backward” for human rights protection.) But promoting all parts of the cacao fruit as edible and nutritious might bring about small changes toward improving equity and sustainability in the industry. Whole-fruit business models can potentially provide much-needed additional wages for growers; in many cacao-producing regions, cacao farmers’ income falls below what the World Bank considers the extreme poverty line, and growers cannot afford the very chocolate products their efforts make possible. Diversifying the products they can sell to include byproducts like the husks, pulp, and seed shells may be a step toward lifting them out of poverty while also helping them adhere to more equitable, environmentally conscious practices.
Many tropical countries known for their cacao, like Ghana and Belize, are not as well-known for their chocolate—let alone other products made from cacao—as are former colonial nations that historically exploited slave plantations. (Countries like France, Italy, and the Netherlands continue to be among the world’s leading chocolate producers.) Now, a wave of bean-to-bar brands are working to rewrite that narrative. In Ghana, companies like ‘57 Chocolate and Mansa Gold produce premium chocolate that celebrates Ghanaian culture and adds value to locally grown cacao. Belizean artisanal brands, such as Che’il Mayan and Cotton Tree Chocolate, are reclaiming the region’s ancient chocolate-making tradition—and some makers are beginning to explore untapped opportunities that could lie in the non-bean parts of the fruit, too. Though locally consumed products like cacao vinegar and wine have not yet been commercialized on a large scale, explains Choco, they “can potentially open up a new market for the Mayan communities” and uplift conservation-minded farmers who have nurtured this labor-intensive crop for centuries. “We cultivate our cacao under agroforestry practices,” says Choco of most cacao growers in Belize. “Our farmers always joke that their first harvesters will always be the woodpeckers—then the farmers receive the second harvest.”
But, in order for non-chocolate cacao products to bring about additional revenue, there must first be awareness and interest. Well-known brands and new entrepreneurs “can have a big impact in terms of creating that demand and providing that extra income to the farmers,” explains Daroci. Whole-cacao business models are “most definitely generating a great deal of interest and attention,” adds Lopata. If they take off, the chocolate industry won’t be the first to successfully market a previously oft-overlooked food. Coconut water was a largely neglected byproduct of coconut processing before it became the globally prominent drink it is today. However, that industry’s arc also presents a reminder: despite the financial success of many coconut water enterprises, little profit has trickled back to coconut farmers.
Initiatives such as Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana’s decision to set a fixed $400 premium per ton over cacao’s benchmark future prices may help to better distribute cacao profits throughout the supply chain. Efforts from non-governmental organizations could also make a difference: the Rainforest Alliance’s certification program requires buyers to pay a minimum of $70 per ton of cacao to certified farmers, on top of the market price paid. Farmers seeking certification must also meet a series of other criteria, including adopting “climate-smart” agriculture practices—like planting shade trees and following eco-conscious pest management techniques—and establishing internal committees to identify and prevent cases of child labor. To pioneer more transparent global trade, wholesale suppliers like Uncommon Cacao, which launched in Belize in 2010, are building partnerships between smallholder farms and chocolate makers. In a similar vein, small chocolate companies like Tanzania-based Kokoa Kamili and Ghana-based ‘57 Chocolate work directly with growers; direct trade standards can eliminate the “local middlemen, who pass through the farms at unpredictable intervals, use unregulated scales to weigh the beans, and pay as little as possible for the crop,” reports Shane Mitchell for SAVEUR. The hope is that consumers will vote with their dollars for brands that not only pay fair wages, but also support growers committed to human rights and environmental conservation.
Blue Stripes began selling online direct-to-consumer last year; now, the company sells its products in Whole Foods stores nationwide and counts Hershey among its investors. Given how universal the love for chocolate is, the potential for whole-cacao business models to make a meaningful impact is hard to ignore. Still, only time will tell whether these companies’ efforts will move the needle on improving social and environmental sustainability in the world’s cacao-producing communities—or simply add more offerings to grocery store shelves.
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