Chocolate is fantastic, and that’s why Ayana Bio is paying special attention to it, said co-founder and Chief Technical Officer Effendi Leonard.
But he’s not praising chocolate for its taste, its near-universal appeal or its ability to inspire deep emotion among consumers. Instead, Leonard is praising the beneficial polyphenols that occur naturally in cacao. These compounds have been linked to many benefits including increased cardiovascular health, cancer prevention and less inflammatory disease.
When consumers eat chocolate treats, though, they only get a tiny fraction of these polyphenols, Leonard said. Most of what they eat is sugar, dairy, fats or other flavorings like vanilla. In order to truly get the benefits of the bioactives in cacao, a consumer would have to eat a large amount of chocolate candy, Leonard said.
“Cacao is such an important global commodity with a billion dollar global market,” Leonard said. “And in some ways, it is not leveraged sufficiently for the purposes of increasing health and wellness or nutrition value. But at the same time, people know that there are lots of goodies, i.e. bioactives, in this delicious thing. Right? So people know that there's something good there, right? But very, very few people can access them.”
Ayana Bio is dedicating $3 million to help more people access those true goodies in chocolate. The company, a spinoff of Ginkgo Bioworks dedicated to using plant cell culturing technology to harness bioactives in plants and turn them into nutritional ingredients, is accelerating the development of cacao polyphenol ingredients. This is one of the first bioactives that Ayana Bio is creating, and the company says that these cacao ingredients should be ready for commercialization by late 2024.
The goal of this project is to make these healthy and natural ingredients available to all manufacturers in a sustainable and affordable way, according to Leonard. The research Ayana Bio does could be used to help the cacao farming industry, and the ingredients will be targeted first at food and beverage. But, Leonard said, they are not planning to do much with cacao’s best-known quality.
“We are not in the business of making confectionery,” Leonard said.
Growing cells, not trees
Chocolate is loved throughout the world and demand is growing at a rate outpacing supply of cacao. In the United States, chocolate sales totaled $21.1 billion in 2021, according to the National Confectioners Association.
But it’s becoming a tricky commodity to farm. Cacao only grows in a few tropical countries, and the industry has been facing disturbing issues with economic exploitation of farmers, child labor and ongoing deforestation.
There are also environmental issues facing traditionally farmed cacao. Because of global warming, the cacao-producing parts of the world may eventually get too hot for the trees to continue flourishing.
This, Leonard said, is where plant cell cultivation comes in. Ayana Bio will be growing cacao cells in bioreactors, concentrating on the cells that have the polyphenols. In a bioreactor, a tree and fruit do not have to mature and develop. The right cells can be targeted and grown on their own, quickly ready to be used as ingredients.
“We can recreate a whole host of polyphenol compounds rather than a single compound,” Leonard said. “And they tend to act in concert, by the way, when they impact health benefits.”
While Ayana Bio has its eye on polyphenols — most specifically the epicatechin flavonoid — the company is interested in precisely what it will be able to develop. Leonard said they’re looking for many different chemicals from cacao, which is why they’re cultivating cells themselves. Cell cultivation is the only way to get the full package, Leonard said. Precision fermentation — modifying an organism like yeast so that it produces a target protein when fermented — works best when there’s just one substance that needs to be created.
Leonard said they will be growing cells of every species of cacao they can get their hands on, searching for what kinds of substances are available, and how food scientists and formulators can work with them.
Plant cell cultivation is similar to the method used by several companies culturing animal cells for meat. Leonard said Ayana’s cultivation method is simpler than for meat, though. There is no whole product they are developing, so no differentiated cells or shapes and forms are needed to meet consumer expectations. Instead, he said, Ayana Bio is just making a bunch of cells to target bioactive compounds.
Leonard said that it’s also simpler to scale up cultivated plant cell technology because the equipment is simpler and the process less complicated. However, it’s unclear what the regulatory path to commercialization will be. The product will be nearly identical to cacao grown naturally — though without impurities like heavy metals picked up from the soil — but it may be subject to more strict regulatory review dealing with the process and scrutinizing the end product.
This cacao ingredient initiative is the first that Ayana Bio is announcing, but Leonard said cacao is not the only thing they are looking at. In August, when CEO Frank Jaksch took the helm of the company, a statement indicated they were also going to be targeting bioactives in ginseng, berries and ginger. Leonard said Ayana Bio will be looking at all of these plants and will prepare to scale the bioactive ingredients all together.
“The reason is very important, which is we want to aggregate these product launches so that we're able to essentially optimize on production costs with economies of scale,” he said.
Looking for a choco-lot of partners
Ayana Bio is working on making a highly nutritious ingredient from cacao, but cell cultivation is where their expertise ends.
Leonard said the company is keen to work with a variety of stakeholders to help make the cacao ingredient a success. After all, he said, Ayana Bio isn’t interested in enhancing food’s taste profile. They want to add nutrition.
But more traditional formulators with cacao ingredients might be able to work with Ayana Bio on this launch, Leonard said. While the cacao bioactives may not look or taste exactly like chocolate, they could have some of the same sensory properties. Companies used to working with the ingredient could lend their expertise in coming up with the best ways to present it, potentially creating finished ingredients that could be powered by Ayana Bio.
Ayana Bio is hoping to work with more than formulators, though. Companies and scientists who are experts in other bioactives that may be present in cacao, for instance, would be invaluable partners.
“The most effective collaboration for Ayana would be something that is complementary,” Leonard said.
However, the nature of the work Ayana Bio will do can help many in the wider cacao ecosystem. As part of this project, Leonard said that the company plans to dig deep into the composition of several varieties of cacao. This research will help Ayana Bio figure out which polyphenols to produce and what’s present in different varieties. But more information on why and how certain varieties of cacao are grown, which plants are more resilient to climate differences, and how to feed a cacao tree to make it the most successful are also likely to be uncovered, Leonard said.
“One of the reasons why we wanted to put it out there is that, ‘Hey look, we have our reasons why we want to do this,’ ” Leonard said. “ ‘But we just want to let you guys know that if you come and join forces with us, there are so many things in this treasure trove that could be useful for other segments of the cacao industry. That the problem is so huge that Ayana alone cannot do everything. We need help.’