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Sweet revolution: How cacao fruit is poised to change the food industry

Updated: Feb 27, 2020

by Megan Poinski

Conventional chocolate production throws out 80% of the fruit that produces cocoa beans. Industry movers are finding ways to upcycle it into confections, snacks and culinary dishes.

Emanuel Gä​vert admits he used to be a bit ignorant about chocolate.

Coming from someone who's spent much of his career working with the confection — he's had nearly a decade of working with Mondelez International's chocolate portfolio, as well as stints with chocolate at its predecessors Cadbury and Kraft —  this is somewhat surprising. He always knew the sweet confection is made from cocoa beans. But after about five years of working with chocolate, he took a trip to Ghana to see where it comes from.

And he learned this: The cacao tree makes much more than cocoa beans. In fact, the cacao pod is actually a fruit in its own right, with its own somewhat tart taste, exotic juices and impressive nutritional profile. In fact, in normal chocolate production, only about 20% of what's in the fruit is used. The rest is thrown out and its only real use is becoming fertilizer for other cacao trees.

"We had this epiphany moment that it's indeed so much more than the bean, and there we had an incredible fruit," Gävert told Food Dive. "We know people love fruits all over the world, so why don't we try and think much wider about using the whole fruit, and thinking about a new set of snacking propositions. ...In a world that it's getting scarce when it comes to food supply, you cannot afford to throw away 80% of a fruit. It's just unacceptable."

Through Mondelez's SnackFutures innovation arm, Gä​vert launched a new brand using the rest of the cacao fruit. CaPao currently has two products — smoothie balls and fruit jerky strips — sold at a handful of natural food stores near Los Angeles.

But the movement to start using all of the cacao fruit is bigger than a startup brand. International chocolate giant Barry Callebaut, which brought the world ruby chocolate in 2017, is leading the charge to use all of the cacao fruit in food and drink. The chocolate sourcing company is working with CaPao and others to make all of the fruit widely available. At an event in September, Barry Callebaut unveiled some of the ways to use cacao. The company worked with top Michelin-rated chefs to design a menu utilizing cacao fruit for cocktails, ceviche and desserts. It also unveiled its new WholeFruit Chocolate, made 100% from cacao.

Bas Smit, Barry Callebaut's global vice president of marketing, told Food Dive using the whole cacao fruit not only brings the fruit's nutritional benefits to different food and drink, but WholeFruit chocolate means a naturally sweet confection — without any added sugar — to brighten its health halo.

And because of all of the applications for the whole cacao fruit, plus the different spin it brings not only to food ingredients but also to sustainability, Smit believes it can revolutionize the industry. "You talk about a true game changer — and indeed, this has the potential to transform the category," Smit said.

Benefits of cacao

While cacao fruit and chocolate are intrinsically related, the fruit is altogether a new taste sensation.

"It tastes so far away from chocolate, you cannot imagine that it comes from the same fruit," Gävert said. "It's naturally sweet, but then it has this zesty, almost tart, citrusy kind of flavor to it. So for some, it can almost be polarizing, but I've been surprised how universally distinct and loved the actual flavor of cacao fruit has been."

This has been one of the challenges for CaPao: informing consumers about what they're eating and creating a product they will like, while addressing the expectation that it will taste like chocolate. Gävert said the brand has worked with top chefs to develop the product and balance the taste. But they're always in R&D mode, especially with such a small initial launch.

Smit said cacao fruit can fit into every part of a meal. At the Barry Callebaut event where the company's push toward cacao was announced, the fruit was incorporated into many sweet and savory foods and beverages.

Barry Callebaut has said WholeFruit chocolate is a fresh and fruity take on the confection. It has a health halo of its own. It has no added sugar, and is sweetened and emulsified by other parts of the pod. It has more than 40% less sugar than conventional chocolate, as well as 90% more fiber and 25% more protein.

But there are other health benefits to the cacao fruit as well. It has iron, magnesium, zinc, fiber, potassium, B vitamins and antioxidants, Smit and Gä​vert said.

Gä​vert said he plays up the nutritional value of CaPao. Some of the brand's most dedicated consumers are looking for that natural goodness and a purposeful nutritional snack, he said.

Aside from nutrition and taste, cacao fruit fulfills other consumer needs. Because it is saving good quality fruit from the compost heap, it has clear sustainability bona fides. Smit said Barry Callebaut has figured out ways to use every part of the fruit, including the peel. Even the people who grow and harvest cacao for Barry Callebaut didn't really use the fruit before. Smit said the workers at cacao plantations in Brazil would drink the juice of the fruit, but had no other applications for it — though he said the workers seemed to think it was strange that so much of the crop was thrown out.

But using the whole cacao fruit creates another kind of sustainability as well: economic sustainability for those who grow and harvest it. Farmers are traditionally paid for the weight of the cocoa beans they harvest. Smit said they are used to dealing with farmers who sell large bags of beans. Now, those same farmers are treated as fruit farmers, with more product to sell to companies like Barry Callebaut.

CaPao highlights the economic opportunity for farmers on its website. Gä​vert said because the brand is small right now, it's only making a difference on a relatively small scale.

"But over time, if you unlock the capability, clearly today they're able to sell 20% of the harvest that they have annually," Gä​vert said. "...With CaPao, the products we're using now, we're using roughly 50% of the fruit. And our mission over time is to get to using the whole of the cacao fruit, even the shell. So in being able for these farmers to not only sell the beans but sell everything — the rest — it just means that they can create more from their harvest."

When will it get to stores and restaurants?

While cacao fruit is becoming a buzzy ingredient, it's not quite at the point where it's widespread and easy to get. But that is changing soon.

CaPao is currently only at 15 retail locations around Los Angeles. Gä​vert said the brand plans an expansion in the first half of the year. It would still be relatively small — available at about 100 stores in California. After that, the plan is tentatively to expand statewide, and then beyond California and potentially online.

Gä​vert said part of the reason for this slow rollout is because of the novelty and uniqueness of the product.

"The education piece, on-pack but also in the stories we're telling about this, needs to also be educational about the cacao fruit," he said. "So we feel that we are learning to walk before we're running on this one to really get it right and really nail even the packaging — just making sure that that's comprehendible to what it is."

The current products include smoothie balls — which can be eaten as is, crumbled on top of another dish, or tossed into a beverage — and jerky strips. They're mostly mixed with other fruits, nuts and seeds. Smoothie balls come in Golden Berries, Apricot & Chia Seeds; Apricot, Golden Berries & Plant Protein; and Mango, Coconut & Cashew. Jerky strip varieties include Cacao Fruit Original — mostly concentrated cacao fruit pulp with apple puree and oat fiber added — Mango, Coconut & Seeds; and Guava, Nuts & Seeds. Gä​vert said as the distribution expands later this year, the products are likely to change slightly based on consumer feedback.

Barry Callebaut's WholeFruit Chocolate will be available in coming months. There will be two varieties: WholeFruit Bold and WholeFruit Velvety, which contains milk. Artisans and chefs will be able to use it in May, and it will be available to consumer brands next year. Smit said this is a new type of chocolate product, but can currently be sold in the United States. It does not face the regulatory issues ruby chocolate is currently navigating.

Smit said part of the issue to scale up cacao fruit is figuring out the supply chain, which is extremely different from that of easily transported cocoa beans.

"Now we don't talk about beans anymore, and we have to make everybody aware of this," Smit said. "Again, it's a fruit and you need it for the taste and its nutrients. But ... if you get the fruit from the trees, hand-picked, you need to within a couple of hours max ... start processing the food already, because after, you lose this fresh fruitiness and this flavor and its nutrient density, that would be, of course, a pity."

Smit said Barry Callebaut is working on big supply chain changes, though he didn't disclose much for competitive reasons. He said using the cacao fruit is big step for everyone, and there is a financial investment involved to be able to do it well. But launching WholeFruit Chocolate as an artisanal proposition gives Barry Callebaut time to prepare for a larger scale release as it begins to catch on.

Similar products are coming to market in other places. Nestlé patented a method of sweetening chocolate with cacao fruit pulp, adding no refined sugar. Its first product using this method was released in Japan under the KitKat Chocolatory label last year.

Gä​vert said he's seen and heard a lot of interest in the ingredient. He expects to be a first mover in what will soon be a crowded field.

"I think if you run a chocolate business, it would be mad not to look at this," he said. "I suspect that it is going to become a large category. And obviously we do not only want to be the first, we want to serve consumers better so that we can take a large chunk of that. But also hopefully lead the way in creating better livelihoods for consumers, but also for the farmers."

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