Jul 14, 2021
By Trevor Mallo
California Cultured: Chocolate Without Cacao Beans, Deforestation, or Exploitation

California Cultured produces sustainable chocolate from plant stem cells cultured to highlight the vast array of flavinols and functional compounds. Led by CEO and repeat founder Alan Perlstein, the team at California Cultured created the world’s first cell-cultured chocolate bar grown in a low-cost, high performance, food-grade cacao cell media. Or as Alan prefers — Chocolate that is simply better for the consumer and the planet. Dr. Jun Axup, CSO of SOSV’s IndieBio, sat down with California Cultured CEO and Founder Alan Perlstein to discuss his journey on bringing cell-based chocolate to market. 

Watch California Cultured unveil their first cell-based chocolate bar during SOSV’s IndieBio Demo Day on July 15th 2021 here

The global chocolate industry is ripe for disruption. We can now make full bodied chocolate that reflects all of the global terroir — but without the deforestation and questionable supply chain.” – Alan Perlstein, CEO of California Cultured

Q: As a previous IndieBio founder, tell us a little bit about your journey of how you got into the food industry or what you’re really driven by and what you’re working on. 

About 15 years ago was when I first started to hear about cell cultured anything. I worked in one of the first labs in the US to work on cell cultured fish. And the more I learned about the reasoning of why making things cell cultured can be better, the more I fell in love with the field. I saw the challenges that the science has to go through as well as I think almost the writing on the wall when it came with both climate change, deforestation, overfishing, ethical issues for animals and people, and you combine all these different separate elements. Developing newer, better, healthier food systems started to make more and more sense.

And that sort of put me on my journey, working in different companies, working for different universities until today. But one of the major detours was one of my previous company. When we were looking to trade a product made with protein sweeteners, and I saw chocolate as a very serious product, but in itself, by looking through the supply chain of chocolate, looking through the health concerns or even the future of chocolate, I saw, wow.  It’s a giant industry. It’s I think right now $130 billion, it’s growing lightning quick over the past even year, there was a giant growth in chocolate because not only do people see it as healthy, but chocolate was one of the things that honestly got people through another day of a lockdown pandemic.

So I saw demand, a bunch of ethical environmental issues. I saw that I had the basic technical and business background. I looked deeper and I saw that all the talent to build the company, to do the science, and to scale up was literally right around me in Davis, California.

And, it just clicked. It made so much sense to work in cell culture chocolate. That we can make it healthier. We can make it tastier. We could make it a lot more cleaner,  and as the chocolate industry is going to go through severe disruptions over the next decade, we can provide a more, sustainable and ethical product for both the large corporations and the consumers who are looking for these things in the foods they are eating today.

Q: For those who aren’t familiar, can you tell us some of the problems with sourcing chocolate and the ethical problems as you mentioned?

So, the way how chocolate is made is close to stone age processes. It’s pretty similar to how it was done thousands of years ago where the seeds get planted, it takes half a decade or more before the cocoa plants may actually produce good quality pods and beans. And then the pods get picked by hand, they get split. They get put into fermentation pits, then they get dried and then ground up with other ingredients. And that is how most of the chocolate of the world is made. 

And this happens across thousands of tiny little farms all over the world from South America, Africa and Asia. Even the process to grow them, for many places, need to spray pesticides, antifungal agents, fertilizers that get them to grow. They need different light conditions whereas when they’re young, they need to grow in the understory, but when they mature, they need full light. 

Unfortunately that incentivizes many farmers to go clear cuts a lot of the surrounding forest areas, specifically the incredibly vital rainforests. Since it’s incredibly labor intensive, many farmers and other groups basically look for very, very inexpensive labor. And that usually either falls down to kids or the more unscrupulous farmer that would result in slave labor. Whereas in many countries in West Africa, there are cumulatively over a million child slaves all involved in the chocolate growing industry. And that’s besides for the amount of just regular kids helping their families grow chocolate. And even with all the claims by the giants corporates chocolate companies around the world, deforestation has increased, child labor has increased, the spraying of all these damaging and toxic chemicals are still continuing even more now at a frenzy pace than ever before, because there are more viruses and insects that are attacking the cocoa crops.

And these are just some of the problems I’m not even talking about mycotoxins in the chocolate or the chocolate itself. The reason why you get all these unique flavor profiles, it’s a bio accumulator. That means that it sucks up the heavy metals, many times lead, cadmium, and chromium in the surrounding soils. They accumulate in both the seed and the shell of where it goes into the chocolate making process.

So everything from the beginning to the end is incredibly problematic. And on top of that, all the chocolate companies that we’ve basically talked to have said, there’s just not enough room. There’s not enough farmers, not enough even region to grow the growing customer base, which is right now, very heavily, not only in the US and Europe, but increasingly in China and India who are just starting to really get a hankering for chocolate. And over the next five, 10 years, that demand is only going to increase massively.

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about plant cell culture. People have heard of people doing bacterial cell culture, people do cell culture with mammalian cells. Where does plant cell culture as a technique lie in that spectrum and what are some of the challenges for making this commercially viable?

Plant cell culture was originally developed the same time as animal cell culture around a hundred years ago. But it was still very primitively done for a very long time. And only in the past, maybe 20 or 30 years was there seriously some scientific advancements trying to figure out how to turn plant cells into production factories for food flavorings, for pharmaceuticals, or anti-cancer agents for dozens of different products and ingredients, but it’s not that widely known outside of a couple of core industries. 

One of the main reasons why was how these cells were grown. They were usually grown using undesirable synthetic chemicals that are also found in many other herbicides, for instance, one of the most powerful synthetic plant hormones is something called 24D. It sounds pretty innocuous, but it’s one of the main ingredients of Roundup weed killer. And the reason why it’s so effective, it makes weeds start accumulating nutrients fast. It basically overloads their internal circuitry and kills them. 

So, traditionally this was done in a very small amount of plant cell culture, but many different countries started putting very, very tight restrictions on the use of these chemicals in food and ingredients. And the entire field went static. 

And it really took, uh, some interesting companies and scientists and academics to really gently push it forward. And it sort of quietly chugged it along while the, the traditional fermentation such as yeast or microorganisms, or even the newer cell culture, food and ingredient products from meat are becoming well-known.

So what we’re able to do is take advantage of the many different metabolomic processes, as well as internal processes that are happening in plant cells. And we can make them not necessarily just produce one specific compound, but we can make them produce thousands of natural compounds all at the same time without changing the DNA of appliance cell or without putting in any undesirable ingredient and our thought was: imagine you could replace these synthetic ingredients with actual food grade ingredients, because there are many plants that we love and eat that have tons of natural plant hormones in them. But no one has actually looked at how useful they can be for plant cell agriculture.

So in essence, what we’re doing is a cross between clean meat and vertical agriculture. That’s how we tend to look at it. We basically have to give the cells food, we grow them in large tanks and you need to give them the right environment to grow and the right way that are flavors to develop as well. So for us, it’s sort of a learning process. And at the same time, we are going to be publishing some very cool scientific advances. So the world can understand a little bit better about the field of plant cell culture for food.

Q: What has been your biggest learning over the last four months at IndieBio and challenges that you faced?

Our biggest challenge was figuring out the best go to market. We came in to IndieBio with some specific assumptions of launching a product as quick as possible while at the same time developing the core technology. And by speaking with many different segments and investors, we saw that we needed to put some of our product launch on hold and just focus on derisking the initial technology as fast as possible. 

And by talking with many different customers, we saw that there was actually a very big need to make some ultra premium chocolate flavinols and high value compounds that are very, very difficult and expensive to retain in the industry. Usually they run for about a million dollars per kilogram. So that was our interesting discovery process.