The appliance of science, as QOA develops cocoa-free chocolate series

The brother and sister scientific team behind QOA are bringing a potential sector revolution in developing a chocolate series using industry ingredient by-products instead of cocoa. Neill Barston reports

With cocoa production around the world presently facing considerable challenges, including over sustainable sourcing, delivering alternatives is fast becoming a necessity. But could confectionery realistically produce chocolate that is entirely free of its core ingredient that has been highly prized by consumers and industry alike for centuries?

The answer, it seems, is very much yes, according to the German scientific sibling team of Dr Sara and Dr Maximilian Marquart (pictured), who founded their ambitious venture, QOA, last Spring. Such bold claims have clearly attracted significant interest from across industry – with its creators keen to stress that they’re not seeking to replace conventional cocoa production markets, rather they’re targeting a position of offering an alternative option. See our exclusive video interview on its development here.

As Max explains in an exclusive interview with Confectionery Production, the reaction to the business has been fully across the spectrum – from those who are highly sceptical of its prospects, to those who have embraced its potential. Indeed, the latter group are clearly in the ascendency, with QOA raising $6 million in seed funding, led by European investment firm Cherry Ventures that has placed faith in the enterprise.

For his part, Max is a material scientist who has successfully founded two companies and helped over 7,000 start-ups sell their solutions to corporations. “I think it’s an amazing thing to start a business with a sibling, and I can highly recommend it.

“You know each other so well. I’ve known my sister for 32 years, and after that time, you’ve been through some situations together, so you know how to discuss things,” he says on finding the delicate balance required for creating a company, which appears to be getting off to a flying start. Its two founders set up their firm in April of last year, with Sara being a food chemist and also gaining experience in flavour formation over the past decade.

As he explains, they set out on their journey to create their business after initial research led to a realisation that up to 50 per cent of current cocoa supplies are at risk due to pathogens and climate change, making them particularly vulnerable. They also held concerns over the fact that cocoa drives deforestation, as well as notably worrying issues including child labour and slavery remain present day problems in West African markets that still make up two thirds of the world’s cocoa supplies.

Bold product design In response, the Marquart’s response has been to turn to other ingredient sources instead of cocoa. Consequently, according to the company, QOA uses by-products of the food industry, including sidestreams from oat or cereal production that are fermented with special micro-organisms and are then carefully roasted. From there, using proprietary microbacteria and flavour formation processes, QOA believes that it is able to mimic the characteristic flavour profile and texture of chocolate. It is reportedly capable of producing lines that are 100% natural, made from local ingredients, and are vegan, as well as claiming to be significantly more sustainably produced than conventional chocolate.

Significantly, the company asserts this can be achieved without sacrificing the classic taste of chocolate that continues to make it a universal favourite around the world. Clearly, the industry will take some convincing that this is in fact the case – given that a number of reduced sugar, or alternative ingredient products have thus far failed to make major inroads into the segment.

But as its founders explain, they’re optimistic that their science-based approach may well prove a winning formula. According to Max, one of his initial starting points for the business was not in fact pure motivation from sustainability, but it was reading a book by biologist Rob Dunn titled “Never Out of Season,’ which looks at the way we eat threatens food supplies. This included looking at how pests and diseases are threatening crops including cocoa farming in Ghana and Ivory Coast, and how there, with reduced opportunities for farming in the region posing considerable challenges to the viability of the industry.

“So our first angle was in fact that we wanted a solution to find a ‘future-proof’ chocolate, as eventually in future we will have less cocoa and want to provide a second pillar from cocoa, and that was our initial idea. “There’s always two sides to everything – a lot of people have been amazed by it, including a lot of small companies who want to work with us, so we’re working on product launches, as well as interest from bean-to-bar businesses – but also some scepticism from them as well, as they’ve said, this is chocolate, you can’t do this to it,” he explains of the reactions so far to the company’s venture.

“It’s important for us to get across that we do not want to take away cocoa per se, we want to provide a second pillars for supplies, and this will hopefully enable improvements with the ‘first pillar’ – that’s my goal for the company,” he enthuses in response to potential concerns from the conventional cocoa sector. He also acknowledges the work being done by bean-to-bar producers that places a strong emphasis on sustainable production, which he said was still an important part of the market. I think there’s a place for conventional cocoa and for ourselves.

“The market will look a little different in a few years – there’s going to be a huge premium segment, which is about 10-15 per cent right now, and it’s heavily growing. A lot more people are aware of what they’re buying, which I think will grow to up to 50 per cent in years to come, the rest being mass market chocolate. It’s in this mass market domain that we’re going to provide an efficient and sustainable alternative,” he explains of their grand vision as it swiftly takes shape.


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