Cell-based chocolate maker California Cultured gets strategic investment from Cult Food Science


Dive Brief:

  • California Cultured, a cultured chocolate maker, received a strategic investment from Cult Food Science Corp., an investment platform focused on cell-based and cultured food. The amount and terms of the investment were not disclosed.
  • California Cultured makes cacao through cells sampled from varieties selected for their taste, smell, melt and performance. The company grows those cells in a way similar to cultured meat, giving them nutrients in specialized bioreactors. The cacao harvested from this method is then fermented and roasted like traditional chocolate, and it produces cocoa nibs that can be used like traditionally harvested ones, the company says.
  • Traditionally farmed cocoa is known in some places for exploiting child labor, while some scientists say the crop itself could be endangered by climate change. As global demand for chocolate continues to rise, some scientists are working on ways to create the sweet confection in new ways.

Dive Insight:

Chocolate has only grown in popularity as time has gone on. According to the National Confectioners’ Association, chocolate is a treat of choice, with most U.S. consumers enjoying it two to three times a week.

But growing concerns about sourcing have led major chocolate makers to change the way they get their chocolate. Barry Callebaut has vowed to eradicate child labor from its supply chain; lift half a million cocoa farmers out of poverty; become carbon and forest positive; and provide 100% sustainable ingredients by 2025. Olam recently used technology to achieve 100% traceability last year for the cocoa it sources thanks to new technology. Nestlé is offering cash to cocoa farming families who keep their children in school, and in 2018, Hershey announced a $500 million investment in cocoa sustainability strategies in Ghana and Ivory Coast. 

California Cultured bypasses all of these strategies by using technology to grow the tropical fruit. Instead of trees grown near local communities of laborers who harvest the fruit, California Cultured’s teams of scientists — and if the company can successfully scale, workers at its fermentation facilities — will be doing the work. This type of solution also can help preserve cacao as global warming threatens areas in which the crop is grown. And with production facilities dedicated to producing cell-based cacao, California Cultured’s solution would only require more bioreactors to make more chocolate — not deforestation to plant more cacao trees.

However, growing chocolate from cells is a complex undertaking. Co-founder and CEO Alan Perlstein told SOSV’s IndieBio — another funder of the company — that while there’s more talk about animal cell culture now, the field of plant cell culture started at the same time, about a century ago. Perlstein, who started working with cell-cultured seafood more than a decade ago, said that while plant-cell culture could have a variety of applications, it has not been widely used — largely because it involved less-than-desirable synthetic chemicals. Instead, California Cultured’s process “is a cross between clean meat and vertical agriculture,” Perlsteing said, allowing it to take advantage of what plant cells naturally do and make, and it can use those processes for better ingredients.

In addition to this latest investment from Cult Food Science, California Cultured previously received $4 million in a seed round led by Agronomics, with participation from SOSV’s IndieBio.

While California Cultured is on to something with its cell-cultured chocolate, it isn’t the only company trying to remake the beloved sweet. Voyage Foods emerged from stealth last year, showcasing its reverse-engineered chocolate. The company analyzes the molecules in food items, then sources them from other places and combines them into a product that looks, tastes and behaves like the real thing. Voyage Foods plans to launch molecule-based peanut butter in the near future.

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