I’m fascinated by the idea of making food from cells grown in a lab and especially the newest idea of lab-grown chocolate.
While lab-grown meat has gotten the most attention, (see my recent post on test-tube meat: Not Old MacDonald’s Farm: is the future lab-grown meat?) I’d say that the coolest application of making food from cells in a lab so far involves plant cells.
Cacao tree cells to be specific.
A company called California Cultured has started growing chocolate in a lab.
I was really curious to try this lab-grown chocolate.
I reached out to the company after they had a visit to UC Davis and ended up with both an interview and a nice big piece of their chocolate (see pic above).
I sat down at a coffee shop in Davis with Steve Stearns, Head of Commercial for California Cultured. He pulled out a plastic container with a large nugget of chocolate, which I couldn’t resist immediately biting into. How did I like it? What did it taste like?
My first reaction was that it tasted just like good chocolate. I did notice it didn’t have quite as strong a chocolatey smell as some dark chocolates I’m tasted. However, this was milk chocolate. Steve mentioned they are doing more research on the aroma. Dark chocolate is likely in their future as well.
As we talked and I savored the chocolate I still couldn’t identify anything non-chocolatey about the sample. What I had was chocolate-coated shortbread. Steven mentioned that the cocoa butter part of it came from a regular source rather than cells, but that cocoa butter is something they are working on. Their cells can produce cocoa butter.
Interview with Steve Stearns of California Cultured
Where did the idea for cell-based, lab-grown chocolate originate? When did the company start?
One starting point was to do something to address deforestation and child slavery in the rainforest associated with traditional chocolate production. After cheese and beef, chocolate production is responsible for the third most deforestation.
We started in late 2020 and have grown to 14 employees.
What are some of the other possible advantages of lab-grown chocolate?
Chocolate originated in Central America. Some of the same diseases that wiped out most Central American cacao are manifesting in W. Africa now, where most chocolate is produced, and yields are dropping. Also, climate change could lead to most of these active regions becoming unsuitable for growing cacao. Lab-grown chocolate could help with the supply.
What exactly are the cells that are grown? At what scale do you grow them? Do they grow indefinitely? Can you cryopreserve cells?
We use cells from different parts of the plant. From the seed, flower, leaf, and dedifferentiated cells. They do grow indefinitely and double in about a week. However, from plant material to a cell line that we can viably scale up can take a year to a year a half.
Yes, we can cryopreserve the cells.
What’s it like to grow “chocolate cells” and are there any challenges?
One advantage of plant cell culture is that media costs are about 2 orders of magnitude cheaper than for mammalian cells like if we think about cultured meat. We don’t need to use FBS. This makes the path to market easier. Also, as compared to lab-grown meat, another plus is that we throw the lab-grown chocolate in a grinder vs. the requirements for scaffolds for meat production.
One question has been, “Can it scale?” The maximum plant bioreactor currently that we know of has a capacity of 75,000 liters and that’s for farm-scale plant cell culture. For chocolate production at scale, we might need half-a-million-liter-sized bioreactors. The largest in the world now is about 250-500K liters and that’s not for plant cells.
Once you grow the cells do you have to process them like cacao pods such as by roasting?
We’re experimenting with traditional fermentation/roasting and trying to figure that out.
Have you talked to Mars or other chocolate companies?
We have had lots of interest from chocolate companies. We may soon announce a deal with Meiji chocolate of Japan known for its Hello Panda snacks.
Will you need some kind of FDA or USDA approvals before marketing your lab-grown chocolate?
Yes, we anticipate having data on chemical, sensory and toxicology analyses for FDA. It’s easier to get into the nutraceuticals and cosmetics space than chocolate as food so we’re planning on that first.
What’s the timeline looking like more forward?
We’re heading into the nutraceuticals and cosmetics space. Chocolate has many potentially useful compounds. There’s a lot of interest in Procyanidins, for example. We’re not selling chocolate yet, but we plan to in the next one to three years.
Do you have IP on the method?
We’re in the middle of purchasing some IP. We anticipate having our own IP in coming years. There’s been a lot of interest in our firm. We’re closing $4.5 million in funding.
What about competition? I saw a Swiss maker working on some kind of lab-produced chocolate.
That’s the University of Zurich. There seems to be no one else in the chocolate cell culture space yet but someone will probably pop up. Interestingly, there are many firms in the synthetic chocolate area.
Can you estimate what the cost will be like for your chocolate vs. traditional chocolate?
It’ll be in the premium market and probably restaurants.
I saw you went to UC Davis. Are there other ties to UCD labs? Will you have to publish data?
We’re interested in doing more with UC Davis researchers. We’ll have to publish some of the research in the future including on clinical trials for the supplement space. Publishing is important for FDA approval too.
Anything else I’ve missed?
Another possibility in the future is to genetically modify the cacao cells. For instance, we could potentially make faster-growing cells. However, we’ve had promising results without doing that so far.
I can imagine CRISPR’ing plants to make them heat or disease resistant.
Yes, that kind of thing could be useful in the future.