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Ayana Bio invests $3M to create healthy ingredients from chocolate

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.

Black and white headshot of Effendi Leonard

Effendi Leonard

Permission granted by Ayana Bio


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.

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