When healthy sweets taste like chocolate instead of something bland, it becomes more enticing to invest in our personal wellness. We deserve to feel strong and healthy without the typical torture it often takes to get there.
Do you know that the global chocolate industry is estimated to be valued at $127.9 billion in 2022? These statistics are enough to show people’s love for chocolate. Chocolate is no doubt a family favorite, but it’s often full of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients. But what if I told you there was a healthier chocolate option that was just as delicious?
Yes, you heard it right.
Dateolate is working to make healthier chocolate alternatives for families. Their chocolates are not only delicious but also nutritious.
Let’s learn more about it.
A Sweet Beginning When Roya Javaherchi was a little girl in Iran, she was immersed in a culture that embraced and celebrated treats, especially chocolates. She also happened to come from a long line of diabetics, leading to dynamic and innovative family cooking in her household.
In place of many traditional sugary sweets, her mother and grandmother substituted dates in a variety of ways that became so beloved and nostalgic to her as she grew up. Her family had discovered a fruit replacement that so beautifully filled that craving for chocolate and sweets, all while contributing to their wellness.
Roya’s grandmothers taught her to incorporate date fruits into recipes as a substitute for sugar in a way that satisfied and delighted and yet preserved the original taste. She earned a bachelor’s degree in food science engineering and landed a job at a specialty company that helped her hone that craft.
After immigrating to the U.S. in 2013. Roya spent some time in various jobs until she ditched her 9-5 for a new life of glazing, melting, and taste testing—for quality control, of course.
Becoming skilled and masterful at creating decadent treats using healthy alternatives became about so much more than just delivering incomparably delicious flavor. It also became the solution to so many problems that it inspired her to share her creations by starting a brand named Dateolate that focuses on creating a healthy solution for chocolates.
The Sugar Problem It’s no secret that many people avoid chocolate because of its high concentration of sugar. And those people who do indulge still struggle with the guilt of eating this much sugar. The consumers of dark chocolate often complain about the bitter taste, and if they don’t partake, they comment about missing the satisfaction that comes from eating chocolates.
Roya solved this problem by infusing dates into chocolates with a special formulation. The final product is sweet and tastes exactly like chocolate, but because of the creaminess of the date paste, it feels significantly more satisfying.
Dateolates are 90 percent natural date fruits, without nearly as much fat, sugar, or carbohydrates as typical chocolates. This means Dateolates much more diet friendly.
According to the National Confectioners Association, 91 percent of American families consume chocolate daily. On the other hand, the bad reputation of chocolate—it is high in sugar and leads to weight gain, for example—has made people feel guilty about eating it.
Despite what most people think, eating chocolate may have health benefits, but further research is needed to confirm that eating chocolate can improve people’s health.
But we know that a Datolate chocolate has health benefits because it is made with 90 percent dates. That means our chocolates have a lot of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
We have been able to make healthier chocolates and a more satisfying sweet for families. Dateolates can easily be used as a routine chocolate during the day and families no longer feel guilty of buying chocolate or giving sweets to their loved ones.
Datolate is a scrumptious, healthy chocolate treat. It is soft on the inside with delicate finely chopped dates and a creamy date paste, and the outside is drizzled with a layer of dark chocolate.
The Health Benefits of Dateolate The following are some of the benefits of Dateolate:
• They are low in fat Dateolate chocolates are a great way to add variety to your diet. The low-fat content of this chocolate helps you avoid heartburn, indigestion, and bloating.
• They are high in nutrients Dateolate chocolates are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, making them the perfect treat for your family. These chocolates also contain iron, zinc, and copper, which can aid in digestion and the absorption of nutrients.
• They promote heart health Dateolates are a great source of potassium and magnesium, which can boost energy levels, help you sleep better, and even improve heart health.
• They help with weight loss Dateolate chocolates are low in fat, making them an ideal choice for people who want to lose or keep their weight under control. This is because the low-fat content of these bars helps you feel fuller longer, meaning that you will eat fewer calories overall.
• They are good for digestive health Dateolate chocolates are high in fiber and protein, making them beneficial for lean muscle growth and helping your body absorb nutrients, like calcium, more efficiently. Also, fiber helps prevent constipation and is good for your digestive health.
Three pieces of Dateolate chocolate are only 100 total calories, which is a much lower calorie count you would get in equally sized 100 percent dark chocolate.
Where Can You Find Dateolate? Our customers tell us they love Dateolate. It has such a positive influence on people, their lifestyles and health. It is a perfect snack for health-conscience people. We are excited about sharing our chocolate with more people around the world.
For more information or to place an order, visit Dateolate’s website.
You may have seen a new face at the 2022 Dallas Chocolate Festival: Vincent Scandura, national account executive at S. Walter Packaging.
At the same event, you also could have seen the “Spooky Collection” offered by Kate Weiser Chocolate in Dallas. This packaging series was recently recognized by GEA for excellence in the folded carton and specialty inks and finishes used category. It was an attention getter at a festival stocked with chocolate products galore, and it was all produced by S.W. Packaging.
Fine chocolate is one of the key markets served by S.W. Packaging, or SWP—other markets include food and beverage, fashion, beauty, jewelry, and hospitality. SWP is one of the companies that make up the S.W. Packaging Group, led by president and CEO Kurt Koloseike.
The Pennsylvania-based company (with offices and warehouses across the U.S.) has been around since 1904. For nearly 120 years, SWP continues to innovate across multiple industry segments, including storage, distribution, and design, while thriving amidst seismic shifts in technology, regulations and sustainability.
They have more than 118 years of experience and more than 320 employees working with specialized retailers and both brick-and-mortar operations to provide custom packaging solutions for online commerce. Clients include Lindt, Godiva and independent operators like Weiser.
“Chocolatiers are a unique customer group due to their role as both artisans and creators. They each have their own story and a specific view of how it should be told.” Koloseike says. “Their craftsmanship and innovation challenges us to develop custom packaging solutions that not only protect the product, but is a customer-engaging, storytelling brand experience.”
S.W. Packaging loves dealing with this kind of client, whose brand is everything to them, working hard to infuse those ideals into the packaging while keeping it cost effective. A new member of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA), the company boasts a worldwide supply chain to provide flexible packaging needs for the chocolate industry—it also works with food, beverage, liquor, and more recently, cannabis companies.
Design, Sourcing, Manufacturing, Warehousing, Distribution & Logistics S. W Packaging offers a full spectrum of services including their dedicated design teams, folding carton and rigid box manufacturing, tailormade bags, bows, boxes and accessories, and leading-edge enhancements and prototyping. S.W Packaging is ready to bring a chocolatier’s vision to life and products to market.
They also provide a strong distribution and inventory management system using warehouses around the country up to and including placing the chocolate in the packaging to ship to the customer. In addition, S.W Packaging has earned the highest level of certification for direct and indirect food contact from the Safe Quality Food Institute and works with a wide range of specialty foods. Even cereal giant General Mills is a client.
“We know food in the high-end space and elsewhere and employ tightly controlled operating standards,” Koloseike says. “We have a lot of variable data we can process through printing and enhancement presses like embossing foil and printing on the carton itself that have become very cost-effective ways for niche brands to differentiate themselves from bigger companies.
Their specialty is in balancing the value add for each client, where it makes sense to go the extra step–or not–in the process of creating a brand image for the consumer and the functionality of the packaging.
“We inventory the packaging and work through very detailed design and fabrication processes with our clients. Then we store that inventory for them,” Koloseike says. “It allows them to buy in economies of scale, and we work with them on detailed processing and forecasting.”
Known for leading with design, S.W. Packaging is doing more and more three-dimensional packaging in the carton space, considering the structural aspect to ensure high-durability packaging.
“Design and engineering have always been a big part of what we do to get form and function,” Koloseike says. “A lot of our work with chocolatiers is about color scheme, the decoration on the box itself, how that impacts customers at their store and on their website.”
For Weiser, S.W. Packaging worked with her to develop a Halloween-themed design from scratch that she loved and was distributed at Costco–which also loved it.
All About Relationships It’s not the first thing creative—and tough—chocolatiers want to think about, but technology has come a long way in packaging. S.W. Packaging embraces technology, invests in it, and brings that value to everyone it works with. It’s that approach that has endeared them to clients.
“In terms of the real customized work we do for middle-market, customer-based, high-end chocolate and candy companies, it’s about service, the relationship, and the quality of product we provide,” noted Vince Scandura, a vice president of sales for SWP. “That drives a lot of our success, because we take the same approach to their packaging as they do to their products.”
According to Scandura, most FCIA members are purchasing a range of packaging options, but boxes are, by far, the biggest in terms of demand. And now that S.W. Packaging has invested in domestic manufacturing, they can help clients enter markets across the country. Whether that means bricks-and-mortar or e-commerce and the unique needs of the client growth model, new markets can be key, as is the fulfillment and operational infrastructure to serve those markets.
Sometimes those client services include taking legal parameters into account, as is the case with the laws many municipalities have enacted that regulate the use of plastic bags. As a service to all business owners, S. W Packaging developed and regularly updates a website, baglaws.com, that is free to use, where retailers can check on current and pending legislation that might affect their business. In today’s environment, it’s important to understand the requirements for each market, and SWP has products to help their clients navigate an increasingly complex area of their business.
“It’s all part of our service to our clients. We understand where you’re located and the rules and laws of packaging in those areas, and we’re going to help avoid that becoming an issue,” Koloseike says. “There might be a ban on plastic or any walk-out-of-the-store bags. We come to the table with that knowledge and help you with products that comply with these regulations because there are penalties for non-compliance.”
There’s a growing need for this service in the marketplace and S.W. Packaging has more than 20 years of experience in this area. Sustainability is a huge issue in the fine chocolate industry and at the company, too, which has a solar field to feed energy to the plant. It also recycles 90 percent of everything flowing through the plant.
Chocolatiers, Welcome! With all these services in place, some for more than a century, S.W. Packaging is ready to work with more chocolatiers.
“Our goal is to get to know every FCIA member, who they are, what we can do for them, and how we can provide value,” Koloseike says. “Our focus is on chocolatiers. We want them to know we’re here and can provide value in a very cooperative way and by not putting them in competition with each other.
According to Koloseike, the next steps for S.W. Packaging are more customer-facing marketing initiatives, as well as continuing to invest in property, the company’s plant and equipment to increase value to its customer base.
“We want to make sure we’re bringing turnkey value—meaning speed, quality and service—to our customers, helping them grow their business, which will help us expand the number of chocolatiers we work with,” he says.
When not thinking about and acting on all aspects of the packaging industry, Koloseike spends time with his family. He has seven children from four years of age to 22.
So far, the only packaging work he does with the family includes bundling them up to go skiing in New Hampshire.
“Some of my kids like cold weather, some don’t, but they all love chocolate,” he says with a laugh.
Inarguably one of the elite, game-changing chefs in the United States over the last 20 years or so, Keller helped make “farm to table” a thing, and reservations at his Napa Valley landmark restaurant (and Per Se in NYC) are hard to come by.
Now, the strength of TKRG is turning to supplying more chocolate couverture to chefs and restaurants.
Chocolate Maker: For Chefs By Chefs
The expanded chef’s chocolate program Parson is working on for 2023 will be focused on consistent flavor (dialing in the flavor profiles) and the fluidity of the chocolate to give pastry chefs dependable ingredients to work with.
“Finding just the right fluidity is key,” Parson says. “If it’s difficult to work with and the shells are too thick, pastry chefs are going to have to re-make things and that’s not okay. It has to be flawless and consistent.
“In my retail chocolate business, I didn’t care about the chocolate being consistent, and didn’t really want it to be,” he continues. “Cacao beans are constantly changing and, in my mind, that’s a bonus. Each harvest is different, and the beans even evolve during different stages of the same harvest, so consistency of flavor was something I never pursued in chocolate.”
K+M aligns their restaurant chocolate program with the chocolates they already use, including their dark chocolate couverture with perfect fluidity made for molding (used in their bonbons). Planned offerings also include a dark 77-percent Peruvian Chocolate, plus a dark chocolate sourced from Ecuador and Nicaragua. Parson notes that K+M’s couvertures are combinations of cacao beans that create a more balanced, less assertive flavor that isn’t so dominant that it’s competing with other flavor components of the finished product.
K+M has already been supplying Keller’s restaurants with the product that has aided Parson greatly in product development.
“I have access to all the chef de cuisine at each property, so I can send chocolate to a chef at The French Laundry and get feedback within a couple days, then incorporate that into another iteration,” Parson says. “Within this organization, asking for and utilizing feedback is expected. It means a lot to be able to utilize all that culinary expertise. It’s refreshing.”
Team Chocolate: Keller, Manni & Parson
Everything Parson develops and releases goes to Thomas Keller to taste, without exception. What’s it like collaborating with a Michelin-starred chef and legendary Italian olive oil producer Armando Manni?
“Most people would probably not expect that from a high-profile chef with numerous restaurants,” Parson says. “He tastes it and we talk about it. He’s really good about accepting things that aren’t to his palate. For example, there are a couple of the bonbons I’ve made this year had tea in them, Earl Grey and matcha, and he’ll say I don’t like tea in chocolate, but every pastry chef I’ve had does and I understand it’s a thing.
“He recognizes quality, and his understanding of food is so vast, he knows when something is done well and not done well whether he personally chooses to eat it when he’s at home,” Parson continues. “On the other hand, I developed a drinking chocolate with four different varieties, and he was very involved in that initially. He had this specific experience in mind from a café in Paris where he had this drinking chocolate, [Keller] wanted the same consistency, thick, and rich, basically like a warm liquid chocolate bar. We recreated that memory and it’s delicious.”
Two chefs, talking, tasting, and making chocolate with both savory and sweet on their minds (and palates), Keller and Parson are on a mission to make the world’s highest quality chocolate for their bars, bonbons and the chef’s chocolate program. Both hailing from the savory side of the kitchen, working with restaurants just makes sense.
“The way I approach being a chocolate maker now, within the context of this organization of the best culinary talents around, is that innovation and creativity are important, but you don’t do things just for the sake of being experimental,” Parson says. “You do it because you’re developing something or learning from it, but don’t dump it to the consumer and expect them to go on the ride with you.”
Parson began his transition from savory to chocolate 15 years ago, co-founding Escazu Artisan Chocolate in Raleigh, N.C., along with partner Danielle Centeno. A neighborhood chocolate shop specializing in bean-to-bar sourced from around the world, the shop was featured in national foodie publications like Wine Spectator and has enjoyed success over the years.
“I was grinding the chocolate and roasting the beans, but also spent a lot of time in the shop,” Parson says. “There was just something satisfying about seeing people come by and become regulars and friends. You know what they like, you’re happy to see them, and to make them happy with coffee and chocolate.”
Parson sold his part of the business to his partner in 2018 and “spent a few months getting my head together, camping in the desert Southwest,” then “the opportunity [with Keller] was there,” Parson says. “There aren’t a lot of jobs for bean-to-bar chocolate makers, but also not a lot of chocolate makers if someone needs that position filled.”
The Genesis of K + M Chocolate
K + M Chocolate was founded as a result of…olive oil. The aforementioned Manni owns an olive tree grove and presses the olives into organic extra virgin olive oil, which they were using at The French Laundry at the time. Manni had a strong interest in health, namely antioxidants and polyphenols in olive oil—which also exist in cacao.
According to Parson, Manni approached Keller with the idea of combining the two and making a line of olive oil-bearing chocolate bars. They sourced several cacao beans that Manni had worked with the University of Florence in Italy to test and work out roasting protocols that would preserve the maximum content of polyphenol.
They started out producing a few bars, which by the time Parson joined the effort a few years ago had become a line (ExtraVirgin) of a dozen bars, as well as providing bulk chocolate to Keller’s restaurants. With olive oil being quite costly to make, the price of the bars was at the top of the range for the U.S. As Parson notes, there weren’t a lot of $15-dollar chocolate bars being sold in 2019. He quickly changed the roast profile a bit because the original focus had been to preserve antioxidants, which necessitated very low-temperature roasts.
“I would say the flavor profiles that came from that were not down the middle, not mainstream, almost just a few years ahead of its time because a lot of the flavors were floral and herbal, medicinal even,” Parson says. “Now, you’re starting to see a lot more chocolate in that vein especially coming out of Japan and a lot of Asian chocolatiers are doing it really well.”
A New Direction
While the ultra-high-end bars K+M Chocolate had been selling had their devotees, Parson wanted to make the company’s offerings more approachable—without discontinuing ExtraVirgin.
“It was a luxury product and that’s not my thing,” Parson says. “I didn’t know how to develop products for that market, but I knew the craft chocolate market, so I developed an entirely separate line that’s currently five bars with a couple of origin bars thrown in there with the idea being to make it more whimsical and more agile with product development and release.”
The new lineup was released in October 2021, at lower price points ($9-$10), and is making gains alongside other new offerings like chocolate-covered macadamia and hazelnuts, plus a wider selection of gift boxes. A new bar is also on the way!
“We’re using a Peruvian bean with a chile from Lima to make a Peruvian dark chocolate,” Parson says. “It’s a fruit-forward chile with a peach flavor in the background, not aggressive, just a slow heat that builds up as you take each bite. Peruvian [cacao] beans have that same kind of characteristic, fruity, bright, mild acidity.”
Single Origin vs. Blending
Once a requirement, single origin offerings are great when they make sense, but aren’t requisite offerings these days from Parson’ viewpoint.
“There’s been a resistance in chocolate making that’s cracked now: If you didn’t call out a single origin on the bar, it’s a problem. But we were also compared to wine and in Bordeaux, blending is a vintner’s art,” Parson says. “I felt like it was another one of those educational things where the first bean-to-bar makers had to educate the public that there was a difference. Most places didn’t make chocolate from cacao beans anyway. The next step was asking them to understand that maybe everything doesn’t have to be a single origin.”
Parson asks: How many 70% Madagascar dark bars do we need in the marketplace?
For every origin there are several makers doing an excellent job of capturing the essence of those beans, he notes, which is part of why inclusions and external flavors are enjoying more popularity among chocolatiers (and the chocolate-buying public) these days. He also notes there are plenty of undiscovered origins still out there, so he’s not eschewing the possibilities.
“Now you see a lot of that where it was previously frowned upon. It was considered less serious, and I never really liked that pushback,” Parson says. “It’s fun to play with flavors and see how they work with different beans.”
Given his restaurant culinary background and K+M’s upcoming pastry chef/restaurant-driven chocolate program, Parson also sees blending as necessary to consistency. “If you’re a chef designing a restaurant menu, you need the ingredients to be relatively consistent,” Parson says. “It took a bit of development to figure out what blend we put together with the beans we use that would be both interesting, but not step on other flavors that might be going on and stay relatively balanced in flavor across time.”
A Career Well Spent
Whether getting to know shop regulars in North Carolina or working side-by-side with Keller and an array of the best chefs in the world, Parson has been able to take his passion for the culinary arts and turn it into good things for himself, his fellow chefs, and now pastry chefs and chocolatiers across the country.
He’s not looking to get his name out to the world, instead he “keeps my head down, doing work, keeping the train on the tracks, and developing chocolate.”
The goal? Build the key agricultural sectors of cocoa and coffee in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Peru to directly improve the livelihoods of more than 120,000 farmers and throughout the cocoa value chain.
This process is being conducted with cooperation from INIAP (Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Agropecuarias) at their facility in Ecuador and ANECACAO (Asociación Nacional de Exportadores de Cacao e Industrializados), a private sector non-profit dedicated to the well-being and development of Ecuador’s cocoa producing and exporting sector.
Tasting Chocolate: ANECACAO Sensory Training #1
Sensory training was provided by the MOCCA Project, Guittard Chocolates and Bioversity for INIAP and ANECACAO at the INIAP—Pichilingue facilities on March 10-11, 2022.
The objective of the Capacity Building for the Sensory Analysis of Cocoa in Ecuador project is to develop chocolate tasting sensory capacities for representatives of the public sector (INIAP) and private sector (ANECACAO).
Previously, equipment was delivered to the Cocoa Quality Laboratory at INIAP and samples of cocoa paste and liquor were processed following the protocols worked by the ISCQF working group (International Standards for the Evaluation of the Quality and Flavor of Cocoa) with the aim of aligning the operation of the equipment and having samples of cocoa paste for this training.
Reference samples from the CoEx were also used to collect data for the baseline of the participants and to know reference flavors by sample origins. Continuing with the objective of training and aligning quality standards, training using Excellencia Cocoa’s Sensory Evaluation Form for Cocoa and Chocolate Liquor.
The activities were developed by John Kehoe (Guittard Chocolates) and Dolores Alvarado (Bioversity) with FCIA’s Mey Choy Paz (Private Sector Liaison ) as facilitator and in-person coach.
This first training included 14 participants, two of whom participated virtually. The training started with a sensory analysis exercise to produce data that will serve as baseline information of the participants, and will serve to evaluate the capabilities of participants in this first sensory training.
An introduction to the ISCQF protocols was made by Alvarado of Bioversity to publicize the evolution and work done by this group. During the two days of training, cocoa tasting sessions were held with reference samples and the use of the Sensory Evaluation of Cocoa Excellence to explain the use of this file and explain descriptor references to participants. These sessions were developed by Mey Choy in person and John Kehoe virtually.
The success of this project is based on the action and joint work of collaborators who provide resources and knowledge for the implementation and correct operation of the laboratories, as well as sensory evaluation of cocoa liquor to value and highlight Ecuadorian cocoa—the starting point for the creation of the Panel of Tasters of Ecuador.
Tasting Chocolate: ANECACAO Sensory Training #2
The second sensory training was provided by the MOCCA Project, Guittard Chocolates and Bioversity for INIAP and ANECACAO at the INIAP Litoral Sur—Boliche facilities May 31-June 1, 2022.
As part of the project Capacity Building for the Sensory Analysis of Cocoa in Ecuador, the objective of which is to develop sensory capacities for representatives of the public sector (INIAP) and private sector (ANECACAO). In this second training, we worked with 25 participants who had received requests from their partners to join these training as indicated by the representative of ANECACAO.
The activities in this training were developed by John Kehoe, Alvarado, Nubia Martinez (Member of CoEx) and Mey Choy Paz. The event kicked off with a presentation by Nubia Martinez on the Sensory Evaluation of Cocoa Liquor and the ISCQF evaluation sheet.
Next, Alvarado presented the results of the baseline exercise performed by the participants of the first sensory training; Prior to this, the results were shared with each of them individually so they could visualize the development of the evaluations and offer feedback on possible improvements.
The first tasting session was carried out with three Cocoa of Excellence reference samples to calibrate and compare the scores of the participants against samples previously evaluated by the CoEx panel. The second tasting session consisted of six samples of Cocoa Liquor prepared by the participants of the first training. Cocoa beans EET484 provided by INIAP Pichilingue were distributed. The objective of this exercise was to see the differences in the flavors of the same type of cocoa by processing in different equipment and with different parameters (as they work in their own laboratories). It was a valuable exercise because they were able to visualize differences in taste.
On the second day of training, we started tasting one of the samples of the EET484 analyzed the day before to calibrate the participants. After that, the exercise began with the nine samples of the intermediate line to all the participants. This data was sent directly to Alvarado to process and gauge participants’ progress. The last tasting chocolate session was carried out on samples of iniaP clones 800 and 801 and on three samples from different sources to evaluate the differences in flavors.
Continued training in tasting chocolate is being supplied to the participants with samples of cocoa paste via Guittard for the third and last training session coming up in September, 2022. Also, an introduction to the ISCQF protocols was conducted by Alvarado to publicize the accomplishments and evolution of this hard-working group.
The success of this project is based on the action and joint work of the collaborators of the project, who will provide resources and knowledge for the implementation and correct operation of the laboratories and sensory evaluation of the cocoa liquor to value and highlight Ecuadorian Cocoa—the starting point for the creation of the Panel of Tasters of Ecuador.
ANECACAO Sensory Training Workshop: Evaluation of Cocoa Quality and Taste Per International Standards
This workshop was held 100% in person June 7-10, 200. Alvarado of Bioversity/CIAT oversaw carrying it out together with members of the Network of Cocoa Tasters of Peru in the Specialized Workshop for the Strengthening of Capacities for the Evaluation of the Quality and Flavor of Cocoa aligned with International Standards—ISCQF.
The tasting chocolate protocols worked to date with the ISCQF were presented, as well as the Sensory Evaluation Form of Cocoa of Excellence, which will soon be used in Peru to have a common language with members of the cocoa value chain at an international level.
Although Peru has worked on a sensory evaluation sheet, which they have been using since 2016, as members of the Network of Tasters they want to use the Cocoa of Excellence file to be aligned with international standards.
Despite its “forest-friendly” reputation, cacao farming is actually causing deforestation in some parts of the world. Fortunately, there’s a way to reverse that trend. This is what we’ve been working on in Ecuador.
We’re using cacao trees to help restore forest on degraded agricultural land. It’s one element of a holistic regenerative agroforestry project that combines cacao trees with a diversity of tall native shade trees, fruit trees, and other food crops like bananas and plantains.
This approach gives a boost to farmer incomes and local food security, removes CO2 from the atmosphere, and improves the overall health of the ecosystem. It’s an example of how businesses, conservationists, and local farmers can join forces to help regenerate the forest rather than cut it down.
The eco-friendliness of cacao farming entirely depends on where and how the cacao trees are planted. In the worst of cases, people cut down a native forest to make way for a monoculture plantation of cacao. In the context of both biodiversity and climate change, this is a bad outcome. Native forests store 4x as much carbon and 35x more species than cacao monocultures.
And yet, clearing native forests to plant monocultures is how most new cacao plantations are created throughout the tropics. A lot of trees are being cut down in the name of chocolate.
Regenerative agroforestry, on the other hand, is a different story. That’s what this article is about to explore.
Cacao Monoculture (left) vs Cacao Agroforestry (right)
Cacao & Agroforestry
Cacao trees are naturally adapted to survive and thrive in the understory of the tropical forest. In other words, they grow well in the shade of bigger trees. Therein lies the advantage of cacao farming in the realm of tropical forest restoration.
It bears mentioning that some high-yield/low-quality cacao cultivars (namely, CCN-51) have been bred to prefer full sunlight. Most heirloom varieties, however, actually need to grow in the shade, especially when they’re young.
Cacao trees can be planted in combination with a diverse array of other food-producing trees and native trees. That’s what agroforestry is—it’s an agricultural method that grows crops in the form of a forest.
Regenerative agroforestry uses this principle as a mechanism for forest restoration. One of the benefits of this approach is a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. Other happy byproducts include soil conservation, watershed protection, and biodiversity preservation.
The cacao that is harvested from a regenerative agroforestry system is called Regenerative Cacao.
Agroforestry: Cultivating crops in the form of a forest.
Cacao Agroforestry: Agroforestry that includes cacao trees grown in the shade of taller trees.
Regenerative Agroforestry: Using agroforestry as a mechanism to restore forest on degraded land.
Regenerative Cacao: Cacao that is harvested from a regenerative agroforestry system.
To’ak and TMA
Regenerative agroforestry is a strategy we’ve been experimenting with for over a decade and a half. At this point, I should explain that when I say “we,” I mean both TMA and To’ak. I co-founded TMA in 2007 with a few like-minded conservationists. Five years later, I co-founded To’ak with a few like-minded entrepreneurs.
Both organizations have been working together on cacao genetics and agroforestry dating back to 2018, when TMA and To’ak jointly created a genetic bank of 100% pure Ancient Nacional cacao trees in the Jama-Coaque Reserve. The genetic bank is our collective effort to prevent the extinction of one of the most legendary heirloom cacao varieties on earth, and to nurse it back to health.
Our regenerative cacao project is the next step in that process: it’s the part where we distribute the seedlings of this historic cacao variety to local farmers as a mechanism for forest restoration.
But this story has its roots in earlier efforts—some of which didn’t work well.
The Failures Before We Got It Right
Coastal Ecuador, which is part of a global biodiversity hotspot, is also one of the most deforested ecosystems in South America. Much of the forest has been converted to cattle pasture and slash-and-burn corn plantations.
TMA has been experimenting with different ways to encourage reforestation among local landholders for over fifteen years, with mixed results. We ultimately learned that it’s very difficult to convince people to plant trees unless those trees will provide them with food, income, or both.
Simply handing out cacao seedlings to farmers, with a vague promise to help them find a good buyer, also does not work well. (We tried it. Doesn’t really work.) Directly planting cacao trees on people’s properties (with their help) doesn’t work either; once the trees are planted, landholders may not nurture them to maturity unless there is a strong incentive to do so. That’s why simply “planting trees” is usually not an effective way to truly reforest land.
Eventually, we learned our lesson. We identified four main obstacles that were impeding farmers from reforesting their own land:
Lack of seedlings and other basic equipment, like fencing (easy to solve)
Lack of water access (more difficult to solve, but surmountable)
Lack of market access for tree crops (much more difficult than most people think)
The opportunity cost of other activities like cattle ranching (this is where most projects fail)
Our approach with this project was to systematically overcome each of these obstacles.
Making Agroforestry the Path of Least Resistance
The first obstacle—lack of seedlings and equipment—was the easiest to overcome. We supply every farmer with all the seedlings and equipment that he or she will need to reforest their land. Some of the seedlings are sourced from the genetic bank of pure Ancient Nacional cacao, spearheaded by To’ak and implemented by TMA. MOCCA also provided key funding for creating and maintaining a local nursery and clonal garden of high-quality cacao trees. TMA also supply farmers with fencing, access to mechanical weed-whackers (a massive boon to labor efficiency), and organic fertilizer.
Overcoming the second obstacle—water access—was critical. A reforestation project is worthless if the trees don’t survive the dry season. In most parts of the tropics, where the year is divided into wet and dry seasons, some level of irrigation is usually necessary for agriculture to be productive. So we built irrigation systems for every single farmer, each of whom helped with the installation and shared 50% of the costs.
The third and fourth obstacles—market access and opportunity cost—are the most difficult to overcome. This is where most well-intentioned NGOs, government institutions, and chocolate companies fail in their effort to promote sustainable cacao farming.
“Show Me the Money!”
As many cacao farmers will readily admit, planting cacao trees is the easy part. The hard part is finding a buyer willing to pay fair prices. This is where To’ak’s role becomes indispensable.
Standard farmgate prices for wet cacao are punishingly low throughout the tropics, including in Ecuador—where prices usually hover in the range of $0.20 to $0.30 per pound for wet cacao. At those prices, the rate of return for most farmers—on both investment and effort—is negative.
Most farmers are rational economic actors. If there is no economic benefit to planting trees—be it cacao or any other species—why do it? For beauty and the good of nature? For anyone who is struggling to feed their family, those lofty reasons usually aren’t enough. The rational economic response to this conundrum is best captured by that famous line from the movie Jerry McGuire: “Show me the money!”
To’ak has long taken pride in paying cacao farmers the highest prices in the industry—ranging from $0.80 to $2.00 per pound, depending on the Cru. This is 200% to 800% above the standard farmgate price. Check out To’ak’s Transparency Report for more details.
This same pay scale was offered to farmers in TMA’s regenerative agroforestry program, and it immediately captured the interest of nearly every farmer in the area. But here’s the catch: these prices are only paid to farmers who plant cacao trees in combination with a specific and diverse array of other trees.
The price premium is explicitly structured as an incentive to restore forest on degraded land. Monocultures don’t count!
Winning the Battle of Opportunity Costs
Another classic pitfall in many regenerative agroforestry projects is the failure to account for opportunity costs. It’s not enough for agroforestry to generate a positive return for farmers. The revenue stream from agroforestry needs to exceed the revenue stream from whichever activity the farmer is currently performing on his or her land. Otherwise, “business as usual” will likely continue.
In this part of Ecuador, the two most common land uses are cattle ranching and slash-and-burn corn cultivation—both of which are also the two primary drivers of deforestation. We calculated the net revenue stream for both of these “business as usual” activities and then compared this to the revenue stream for regenerative agroforestry.
As you will see, the benefit of a “direct trade” relationship with a premium cacao buyer like To’ak is a critical piece of the economic puzzle.
A comparison of net revenue streams for “business as usual” activities versus regenerative agroforestry
As the table shows, regenerative agroforestry does ultimately win out against both cattle ranching and corn cultivation, as well as coffee cultivation. But there’s another problem: it takes four or five years before cacao trees begin generating revenue, whereas cattle and corn can generate returns in the first year.
One solution to this problem is to intercrop cacao trees with banana and plantain crops, which produce food and income within twelve months. But this still doesn’t entirely erase the short-term deficit. Considering most families in this region live month-to-month, short-term revenue takes precedence over long-term revenue.
This is where the mechanism known as “payments for ecosystem services” (PES) comes into play.
The Clincher: PES Payments
Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) are financial incentives offered to landowners in exchange for managing their land to provide some sort of ecological service—for example, planting trees that remove carbon from the atmosphere.
To learn more, check out TMA’s article that explains the concept of Payments for Ecosystem Services, which we believe to be a veritable game-changer in the realm of tropical forest restoration.
In the context of this specific PES project, TMA pays farmers $4,500 per hectare over five years to convert their own deforested land into a regenerative forest that features shade-grown cacao trees. This payment immediately increases farmers’ earnings by 44% relative to slash-and-burn corn cultivation and over 300% relative to cattle ranching. This is enough to convince farmers to shift their activities away from degenerative agriculture and toward regenerative agroforestry.
In addition to the $4,500 in direct payments to farmers, an additional $2,900 is invested in each hectare, including all equipment and seedlings, site visits, technical assistance, and monitoring. The total investment is $7,400/hectare ($3,000/acre).
A comparison of annual earnings per hectare for farmers at To’ak farmgate prices versus standard farmgate prices with and without PES income
This payment is not a subsidy or a welfare payment. It’s a payment in exchange for the service of removing carbon from the atmosphere and preserving biodiversity in a global conservation hotspot.
It also bears mentioning that the PES payments only last for five years. It is a short-term measure designed to bridge the gap until farmers begin to generate an independent revenue stream through the sale of cacao, banana, and other tree crops that their regenerative agroforestry parcels produce. You can learn more by checking out our other article “Why Paying Farmers for Reforestation is a Game-Changer.”
Planting Design & Ecological Impact
The species mix and planting densities for our regenerative agroforestry program are quite specific. We created this design ourselves, informed by fifteen years of agroforestry trial and error in this particular ecosystem and in these same communities.
Here’s the breakdown of trees and crops, per hectare:
80 native shade trees, across 11+ species
40 large fruit trees, across 5+ species
600+ cacao trees, using 12 different cultivars (including 100% pure Ancient Nacional cacao)
300+ banana and plantain plants
This means that each hectare contains a minimum of 720 trees across at least 17 different species, in addition to a healthy dose of the region’s most important staples: banana and plantain. We estimate that each hectare planted according to this design, on land that was previously deforested, removes 191 tons of CO2 over the 30-year project life, net.
Human & Economic Impact
The first round of farmers started planting in January of 2021 and the second round put their seedlings into the ground in January of 2022. This is still a relatively small-scale project. We hope to keep scaling it up. Thus far, here’s the impact:
77 acres (31 hectares) of land is being restored to forest
37 families are participating
16,320 trees have been planted across 20 species
On average, this project boosts overall family income by 50%
Once these cacao trees reach maturity, starting in 2024-2025, the farmers currently enrolled in this program will likely produce about 40 tons of wet cacao per year. This equates to roughly 13 metric tons of high-quality dark chocolate each year. In the process, it helps restore the forest in one of the most deforested ecosystems in South America.
At a recent seminar sponsored by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, one of Cuna de Piedra’s founders, Enrique Pérez, described the brand’s somewhat inauspicious product launch at the Northwest Chocolate Festival in November 2019. The brand had just been conceived of in March of that same year, and the team behind Cuna de Piedra had only received the wrappers for their bean-to-bar chocolates the night before the event. Pérez was already unsure that the brand’s value would resonate with U.S. consumers, consisting mainly of single origin, 2-ingredient, Mexican dark chocolate: “we don’t have creamy chocolate; we don’t have chocolate and hazelnut, etc.” he says.
When the team initially found that not a lot of people at the festival seemed interested in trying their samples, they thought their fears might be confirmed, if it weren’t for one lady who expressed a lot of enthusiasm for what they were doing and wanted to taste. Pérez describes her reaction: “‘You know what? This is incredible and I love it,’ she said, “but I cannot taste the Tabasco…’”
“People weren’t trying our samples,” Pérez explains, “because they saw the word Tabasco and thought, ‘hot sauce.’’ Five of seven of Cuna de Piedra’s chocolate bars (at the time) had the word Tabasco on them, as the cacao beans are sourced from the Mexican state of Tabasco. “After that we started saying out loud every 5 minutes, ‘this is cacao from Tabasco, not with Tabasco,’” and eventually a crowd gathered.
While it might have seemed inauspicious at the time, it is actually a fitting launch for Cuna de Piedra, as it highlights precisely the challenge that the brand was built to overcome: a misperception of what it means to be hecho en México.
CHOCOLATE WITH A MISSION FOR MEXICO
“We wanted to create something that was an homage to our land, to our people, to our biodiversity, and to Mexican cacao,” Pérez says. His particular lens was that of a food consultant, who had years of experience working with brands and producers on matters of innovation, quality, and safety. One thing that struck him as a matter in need of serious rebranding was the idea, both inside and outside of Mexico, that Mexican-made products were not naturally of high quality.
He cited a 2016 study conducted by public brand strategy firm Vianovo on the “Perception of Mexico’s Brand in the U.S.,” that found that not only did U.S. consumers not have a high degree of confidence in Mexican products but that its overall perception of Mexico was one rooted in crime and corruption. Perez, who partnered with designer and brand strategy developer Vicky González, wanted to make a difference, even if on a small scale, and create something that Mexicans could be proud of.
“We wanted to create a remarkable product that was not only delicious, but that also had an outstanding design,” says Pérez. “Even in Mexico, people place a higher value in products that come from outside the country, because they are considered to be of a higher quality and more worth spending money on.”
Along with González, they recruited Jorge Llanderal, a former tech worker turned chocolatier, whose family business Chocosolutions provides chocolate supplies and equipment to restaurants, who would help produce the first, Mexican-made, bean-to-bar chocolates for Cuna de Piedra.
Part of Pérez and González’s original mission was also to create a brand that had “human sense,” that raised the quality of life for everyone involved in the making of their chocolate, beginning with the cacao farmers themselves. Doing so meant removing the distribution piece that exists between the cacao farmers and the chocolatiers, partnering directly with growers, and paying them above market price for their cacao beans.
“There’s a tremendous amount of history and culture related to cacao,” says Pérez. “So we envisioned a brand to make 100% Mexican chocolate with Mexican cacao.” This also meant going to the source: a small region called Soconusco in the state of Chiapas, believed to be the birthplace of cacao in Mexico, from which the practice of making chocolate spread. In addition to a Cooperativa Rayan in Soconusco, Cuna de Piedra sources cacao from several growers and cooperatives from numerous Mexican states including Tabasco and Oaxaca
A STORY OF MEXICO
In addition to its collection of various Mexican dark chocolate bars, the Cuna de Piedra team also wanted to bring light to other important aspects of Mexico’s culture and gastronomy, especially heirloom crops. Read more by clicking here.>>