Sugar and fat are killing us, so an Estonian chocolatier is using science to make treats healthier.
This article is published in collaboration with Research in Estonia.
“I can’t allow dreams of a better future to remain a secret,” UC Berkeley engineer and lecturer Alar Kolk said when he first started working with chocolatier Kristi Lehtis. “I also can’t afford to deal with small issues that have no impact.”
As a researcher and president of the European Academy of Innovation, Kolk is committed to inventing new products. Jumping regularly between the United States and Europe, he always thinks big. When Kolk took a small chocolate shop, Chocolala, under his wing, he was determined that nothing less than disrupting the entire nutrition industry in the United States simply wouldn’t do.
For nearly a decade, Chocolala had evolved at a much slower pace. Lehtis had quit her job as a lawyer and opened her chocolate shop to spend more time with her family and do what she loves: spreading sweets!
His chocolate factory in the old town of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is known for its handmade sweets and experiments with local products. Sometimes Lehtis picks reindeer moss herself from the forest and adds it to her chocolate.
When Kolk joined as a mentor and brought his ambitious ideas with him, Lehtis was sold. He looked convincing.
Lehtis, in any case, is rather adventurous.
A few years ago, Chocolala turned to science in the search for new products. The University of Tartu has proposed adding probiotics to chocolate. Marika Mikelsaar and Mihkel Zilmer discovered lactobacillus fermentum ME-3 in 1995, and it was already in yogurt sold in Estonia – so why not chocolate? Its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties help digestion and strengthen the immune system. Chewing chocolate that feels good, what could be better than that?
It was now easier for parents to also give probiotics to their children.
A small shop meets big ideas
In early 2022, Chocolala entered an acceleration program where Lehtis met her future mentor Kolk.
With a background in the food and health industry, Kolk told Lehtis that Chocolala has the potential to disrupt the eating habits of millions, not just three people.
“I finally see how the mindset is changing in Estonia,” Kolk told Research in Estonia. “Scientists and entrepreneurs set their goals while executing them! »
Kolk uses big data and artificial intelligence tools to map the needs of the world’s population.
Market research has shown that at least one in two people in the United States suffer from obesity or high cholesterol. That means one hundred million potential adults would have to give up sugar and fat in the United States alone. Kolk and Lehtis have decided to look across the Atlantic.
The real fight here is convincing millions of people to eat healthier and pay more. According to Kolk, if your product offers ten times the value, it should be priced accordingly.
The Starbucks story inspired him. When the three Seattle-based owners started their business, the coffee was cheap and of poor quality. “A cup of coffee was 50 cents back then,” Kolk explained. “Starbucks asked for five bucks a cup and made it good.”
Chocolate might have a similar story since most bars on grocery store shelves are low quality right now.
Over-roasted cocoa beans
Natural cocoa beans are rich in antioxidants, minerals and vitamins. Most chocolate factories use chemical processing and roast the beans at such high temperatures that most of the goodness of the chocolate is lost. Instead, it’s replaced with sugar and fat, making the potential superfood a killer food.
Chocolala and Kolk want to change that. They use the latest contemporary scientific advances to process cocoa beans at low temperatures. How exactly this is achieved Kolk isn’t keen on revealing, calling it a “secret”.
To make their treats accessible to people struggling with obesity, they invented sugar-free and fat-free chocolate. Confectioners have replaced sugar with monk fruit, which is several times sweeter than sugar, natively found in China and has recently become increasingly popular in the United States. Removing the fat from the bar meant that the chocolate became powder. To this powder, they add anti-cholesterol properties. The consumer can mix it with water for a hot chocolate instead.
They are now also working on a chocolate bar that increases well-being and happiness, using the best science available.
Access to ambition
Lehtis has spent the past decade perfecting its product. “I didn’t do any market research; I just did what I loved,” she explained. “Alar brought science and a sales focus with him.”
Chocolala will now focus on selling what they have instead of experimenting with new ideas. With a background in industrial engineering and a doctorate. in the design of Mars transport systems, Kolk is a surprising addition to the dessert industry. “A human machine works the same way as a software machine,” he explained with a smile. “They’re the same, essentially.”
Anyone has the chance to succeed anywhere, whether it’s Tallinn or Berkeley, Kolk believes. Data and science are accessible if you know how and where to look.
“You want to know more about the transformation of chocolate or humanoids? Kolk asks. “Access to knowledge is there, but the real question is – is there access to ambition?”
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