A texture, taste and legal challenge: Chocolate start-up shirks sugar for dates

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

Kaakao uses ground dates to sweeten its confectionery, meaning it can't legally use the term chocolate. © Kaakao
Kaakao uses ground dates to sweeten its confectionery, meaning it can't legally use the term chocolate. © Kaakao
London start-up Kaakao managed to overcome texture and flavour challenges when sweetening its chocolate with dates instead of sugar but the regulatory challenge - the EU definition of chocolate - is proving to be more difficult.

According to Kaakao's founder, Stephanie Seege, who hails from Finland but is based in London, it took the start-up and a partner factory in Switzerland a few years to get the formulation right and able to be scaled up.

Our breakthrough is sweetening chocolate using dates only,” ​she said. "Dates do not change the texture or flavour of chocolate - when done properly. Theycan be used as a substitute for sugar, but just like any recipe, it requires time, skill and patience.

Traditional ingredients, novel application

“The technical difficulties were using traditional ingredients – dates and coconut milk – in an untraditional way. Finding the right level of dryness, the right manufacturer, the right shelf life. That's literally the art of chocolate making.”

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© Kaakao

The result, Seege said, is a chocolate with a sweet and creamy flavour and a texture that has the same “snap​” as standard chocolate when broken.  

As far as the body is concerned, however, sugar is broken down in the same way, whether its source is an apple, a sugar cube or a spoonful of honey. So what is the benefit in using dates as a sweetener?

Sugar is sugar - you're right,”​ she told FoodNavigator. “What we question is: why does chocolate have to be made with refined white sugar, just for the sake of tradition and its [functional] benefits? I'm not a nutritionist, but as far as I'm concerned, refined sugar has very little nutritional value other than energy.

“Dates, on the other hand, are rich in several vitamins, minerals and fibre, and we can claim that our Kaakao bars are 'high in fibre' because of that. That's something the manufacturer of a traditional chocolate bar cannot do." 

Dates also have a low glycaemic index and do not cause spikes in blood glucose levels, meaning they can be enjoyed in moderation by diabetics, Seege said.

Kitchen-cupboard ingredient list

Consumers’ familiarity with the kitchen-cupboard ingredients – such as dates as the sweetening element – gives Kaakao an advantage over a chocolate sweetened with an industrial-produced sweetener, she added.

“There are many brands claiming to be 'sugar-free' or that say they produce chocolate with 'no added sugar', They might use stevia, aspartame, xylitol [which is] naturally laxative or any other form of sugar. The problems is that we still don't know how many of them affect the body long-term.

“Would you ever buy a bottle of liquid xylitol and pour that over your morning porridge? I doubt it."

The bars are gluten-free, dairy-free, certified organic and suitable for vegans and vegetarians.

They contain 25 g sugar per 100 g.

Kaakao sources its cacao from fair trade cocoa cooperatives in Ecuador but the product is not yet certified fair trade . “This is something we are currently looking into sorting out,”​ Seege said.

The ‘Original’ Kaakao bar contains: cacao, cacao butter, dates and coconut milk.

‘Strawberry and vanilla’ Kaakao contains: cacao, cacao butter, dates, coconut milk, freeze-dried strawberries and Madagascan vanilla.

‘Not chocolate’

However, the London-based start-up, which is owned by Finnish parent company Nordchocolate Oy, has run into one major obstacle: it cannot call itself chocolate.

According to a 2000 EU directive​, the term chocolate is reserved for products obtained from cocoa products and sugars which contain at least 35% total dry cocoa solids, 18 % cocoa butter and 14 % dry non-fat cocoa solids.

As Kaakao sweetens its product with whole ground dates, naturally sweet due to the glucose and fructose content, it is left in the same group as products such as hot chocolate powder and granola - a 'cacao product'.

An organic chocolate bar made with four premium ingredients that can’t be called ‘chocolate’ is a great example of how confusing current food labelling laws are,” ​said Seege.

“It doesn't seem like EU legislators are up to date with how production methods and ingredients are developing. A law made decades ago […] really isn't serving us anymore.”

The same barriers exist in other countries too, however, and Seege said she is not aware of any country where she could lawfully market Kaakao as chocolate.

Asked if the regulatory obstacle was hampering sales, however, she said: “Yes and no​."

Confusion is the worst and it can be very misleading. We know that a purchasing decision is made in seconds or less, and if something isn't clear, it's highly likely that the consumer will opt for something they understand,” ​she said. "Luckily, our bars still look and taste like chocolate.” 

Kaakao has bricks-and-mortar listings in specialist retailers the UK, Finland and New York with Swedish and Hong Kong listings in the pipeline.

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