In a captivating panel discussion with Kennedy’s Confection Editor, Kiran Grewal, leaders of renowned cocoa companies, Claudia Franceschi of Franceschi Chocolate, Julia Ocampo of Luker Chocolate, and Kate Clancy of Cargill, discuss their companies’ rich histories, sustainability initiatives, innovative approaches, and shared commitment to shaping the future of cocoa ingredient production while catering to evolving consumer preferences.

Can you provide a brief overview of your company’s history, mission, and its role in the cocoa ingredient industry? 

Claudia Franceschi (CF): Our company, Franceschi Chocolate, has a rich history dating back to the 1820s when Vicente Franceschi established a cacao plantation in Venezuela. Our mission is to preserve the quality and genetics of premium cacao while promoting responsible, sustainable production. We are deeply committed to nurturing partnerships with our suppliers and delivering award-winning chocolates. 

Julia Ocampo (JO): Luker Chocolate, founded in 1906, is a family-owned B4B chocolate manufacturer. Our mission combines quality and sustainability, partnering with brands and companies to improve the lives of cocoa farmers and protect the environment. We are a certified B Corporation, emphasising purpose and sustainability in our operations. 
Kate Clancy (KC): Cargill provides food, ingredients, agricultural solutions, and industrial products to nourish the world in a safe, responsible, and sustainable way. We connect farmers with markets, customers with ingredients, and families with daily essentials. Our ambition is to sustainably provide high quality cocoa and chocolate throughout the world and secure a thriving cocoa sector for generations to come.  

What sustainability initiatives has your company undertaken in the cocoa supply chain, and how do they impact cocoa ingredient production?

CF: Our sustainability initiatives include pesticide-free cultivation, non-GMO seeds, strict traceability, and certifications like Organic and Fair-Trade. We also empower cacao producers through technification and ethical programs, enhancing quality and well-being. 

JO: We have a triple impact model, improving social well-being, increasing small producer incomes, and working in harmony with the environment. Our sustainability plan, The Chocolate Dream, focuses on education, community resilience, and professional training, benefiting regions where we operate. 
KC: We’ve trained all Cargill Cocoa Promise farmers on sustainable cocoa production practices, helped families find new ways to increase their household income and worked to keep children off farms and in school. We’ve used innovative GPS polygon mapping technology and satellite data to identify and address deforestation risks, and helped farmers adopt agroforestry practices that reforest areas, supplement farmers’ incomes, and sequester carbon dioxide. We’ve also brought financial and physical traceability to our supply chain, leveraging digital solutions like bar coding and mobile banking. This has all been in collaboration with more than 60 partners across the industry, showing that business can be an important force to deliver societal change.   

How does your company ensure traceability and transparency in sourcing cocoa beans for your ingredients, and how does this benefit your customers? 

CF: We achieve 100% traceability, allowing customers to trace our cacao from farmers to local distributors. This ensures transparency, accountability, and empowers consumers to make informed choices. 

JO: We work closely with our supply chain, ensuring cocoa is grown sustainably and all actors are fairly remunerated. We’re undertaking an ambitious project for deforestation-free traceability, offering customers reassurance about the origins of our cocoa. 
KC: Technology is at the heart of our traceability program, helping to ensure the integrity of our cocoa supply chain. We work with third party organisations to trace cocoa from the farm to the warehouse to our customers. We harness digital technology to ensure the reliability of our sustainability claims, such as with GPS/polygon field mapping and cocoa bag electronic tracking. We use traceability to understand where our cocoa beans are grown, which enables us to develop interventions and programs that can have a real impact in the communities where we do business.   

Could you discuss the quality control measures and certifications your company employs to ensure the highest quality cocoa ingredients? 

CF: We employ a comprehensive four-level quality control process, from field inspection to final review. We have certifications like Organic, Fair-Trade, and Rainforest Alliance, and we continuously enhance our methodologies. 

JO: Quality control is meticulous at every stage of production, including safety certifications like FSSC 22000 and environmental management with ISO 14001. We emphasise food safety and employ rigorous control checks. 
KC: Farmer training and sustainability programs are integral to ensuring that we source the highest quality cocoa ingredients from farms that have the best maintenance and post-harvest practices in place. Under the Cocoa Promise, 100% of cocoa in our direct supply chain is traceable up to the first point of purchase and 70% of all farmers participating in our direct supply chain have been mapped allowing us to monitor tree cover loss and assess Land Use Change and deforestation risks.  

Can you elaborate on your sourcing practices and relationships with cocoa farmers or cooperatives, particularly in terms of fair trade and ethical sourcing? 

CF: We empower cacao producers through our holistic program, addressing agricultural practices, lifestyle improvements, economic growth, and ethics. We build long-term relationships with farmers and communities, ensuring ethical sourcing and sustainability. 

JO: Our Creating Shared Value approach involves long-term relationships with employees, small grower associations, and communities. We create a more prosperous future based on their specific needs and context, aligning with fair trade and ethical sourcing. 
KC: Over the last decade we have collaborated with more than 60 partners across the industry, showing that business can be an important force to deliver societal change. One great example is the Cocoa & Forests Initiative, in which the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana joined with Cargill and other leading cocoa and chocolate companies – representing 85% of global cocoa usage – to end deforestation and restore forest areas. Balancing the wellbeing of farmers with the conservation and restoration of forests is one of the most pressing challenges in the cocoa sector. By using innovative technology, here at Cargill we are mapping farms, tracing cocoa, assessing deforestation risk, engaging suppliers and prioritising actions on the ground. Our actions, in collaboration with the Cocoa & Forest Initiative, play a crucial role in sequestering carbon stocks in West African forests and addressing climate change, in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.  

Are there specific cocoa bean varieties or origins that your company specialises in, and how do these choices impact the flavour profiles of your cocoa ingredients? 

CF: We specialise in Venezuelan cacao beans, known for their complex flavours with notes of almonds, fruits, malt, and vanilla. The genetic diversity of Venezuelan cacao creates a wide range of flavours. 

JO: We exclusively work with Cacao Fino de Aroma, celebrated for its fruity, flowery, and nutty malt notes. This unique cocoa type shapes the distinctive flavour profiles of our cocoa ingredients. 

How are you responding to the growing demand for healthier cocoa and chocolate options, such as low-sugar or functional cocoa ingredients? 

CF: We incorporate natural sweeteners like yacon and coconut sugar, aligning with clean label trends. Our focus on sustainability and minimal processing caters to health-conscious consumers. 

JO: We’re committed to developing low-sugar and functional cocoa ingredients, such as oat milk plant-based options and natural sugar alternatives like panela and coconut sugar. 
KC: A key focus area for us over the past year has been on achieving sugar reduction through our cocoa products, which, of course, needs to be balanced with a high-quality sensory experience. Our recently launched Gerkens® Sweety range is one example where we are meeting all these demands. It enables 30% sugar reduction, in a natural way, without compromising on great chocolaty taste. The Sweety Range consists of two Gerkens® cocoa powders, each with a unique flavor profile, low in bitterness, with a strong well-balanced chocolaty taste and a strong sweet perception. As a result, less sugar is needed in the final application, and it is just as tasty.   

In line with clean label trends, what efforts have you made to provide natural and minimally processed cocoa ingredients? 

CF: We prioritise natural and minimally processed ingredients, using fewer additives and focusing on purity. Our commitment aligns with clean label trends, and we utilise unprocessed sugar alternatives like panela. 

JO: We use fewer, more natural ingredients, preserving the authenticity of our cocoa ingredients. We focus on clean label products and new formulations with unprocessed sugar alternatives. 
KC: Clean labels and natural origins are a trend that’s here to stay even in indulgent food categories such as confectionery. Consumers are becoming more and more conscious about the ingredients in the products they consume with six in ten saying they are likely to look at the ingredient list when shopping for packaged foods and beverages. Our Gerkens® GS Range is a premium selection of seven dark cocoa powders which have an alkalisation level below 7%. This means that they don’t require alkalizing agents to be labelled on the ingredient list when used as an ingredient in composite food products, helping our customers produce label-friendly products.  

Are there any new or unique flavour profiles or cocoa ingredient blends you have introduced to cater to evolving consumer tastes? 

CF: Our Selected Origins portfolio allows a journey through various flavour profiles reflecting the unique attributes of the regions where the cocoa is grown, catering to consumers seeking complex flavour experiences. 

JO: We’ve introduced an ‘Oat M!lk’ portfolio, natural sugar options, and non-sugar added alternatives to meet the evolving tastes of conscious consumers. 
KC: With most sweet categories being driven by new flavour development, creating products that surprise and delight consumers is currently all the rage. At Cargill we offer a wide range of chocolate flavours and regularly update our flavour palate to reflect evolving consumer tastes and market demand. We also offer co-creation sessions with our customers at our newly built House of Chocolate, a collaborative space where we help brands explore market trends, brainstorm concepts, and bring new products to life.   

Can you share insights on current market trends and consumer preferences in the chocolate and cocoa ingredient sector? 

CF: Consumers seek allergen-free, plant-based options, natural sugars, ethical sourcing, and traceability. Our initiatives align with these trends, promoting transparency and sustainability. 

JO: Plant-based, natural sugars, and caramel flavours continue to captivate consumers. The market trends towards health-conscious and indulgent options, and we’re addressing these preferences. 
KC: On the flavour front, bold, retro flavours are gaining momentum. In both gourmet and industrial chocolate sectors, brands are leveraging childhood favourites like chocolate orange, mint chocolate chip, cookie and marshmallow to add a touch of comfort and nostalgia to their products, though often updating these traditional tastes with a contemporary twist. We also know that consumers eat with their eyes, so bold colours – from the darkest of darks to the brightest of whites – help catch the eye and excite the palate.   

How have you addressed recent supply chain challenges, such as climate change impacts or global transportation issues, and maintained a reliable supply of cocoa ingredients? 

CF: Our commitment to soil health and sustainability practices helps mitigate climate change impacts. We also explore innovative transportation methods, like using sailboats, to reduce our carbon footprint. 

JO: We provide advice to producers to address crop concerns before they impact our clients. Our research and development efforts enhance productivity and resilience, ensuring a reliable supply. 
KC: Overcoming obstacles such as complex supply chains with multiple participants and streamlining the administrative requirements of managing vast amounts of data is one of the biggest supply chain challenges with cocoa. The more we know about our ingredients, at various stages in the chain, the better we can take steps to secure and manage our quality of supply, target our programs, and improve our sustainability activities that benefit farmers and their communities. Transparency and traceability are key to ensuring a thriving cocoa sector, particularly in the face of immediate challenges such as transportation issues or the impact of climate change.  

How does your company stay compliant with international regulations and standards governing cocoa and cocoa ingredient production? 

CF: We closely monitor and adhere to international standards, emphasising clean label and natural ingredients. We undergo rigorous audits and maintain certifications to ensure compliance. 

JO: We adopt key product and process certifications for food safety and quality. We actively monitor changes in regulations, keeping our risk analysis updated and maintaining strict control throughout production. 
KC: We believe that dialogue is the winning strategy between all stakeholders and collaborate with more than 60 partners across the industry to deliver societal change. One great example is the Cocoa & Forests Initiative, in which the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana joined with Cargill and other leading cocoa and chocolate companies (representing 85% of global cocoa usage) to end deforestation and restore forest areas. Balancing the wellbeing of farmers with the conservation and restoration of forests is one of the most pressing challenges in the cocoa sector. Our actions, in collaboration with the Cocoa & Forest Initiative, play a crucial role in sequestering carbon stocks in West African forests and addressing climate change, in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.  

What do you see as the future outlook for cocoa ingredients, and what role do you intend to play in shaping the industry’s future? 

CF: We aim to transform the industry by creating shared value with producers, ensuring quality, sustainability, and well-being. Our commitment to ethical sourcing and premium cacao will continue to shape the industry. 

JO: We anticipate a balance between indulgence and health-conscious choices, with greater demand for traceability and sustainability. We intend to lead the way in integrated supply chain solutions, focusing on quality and sustainability. 
KC: As we look to the future, we will keep finding new ways to advance the relationships, models, and platforms we have built with our partners to make a positive impact on a much larger scale. Our focus will continue to be on investing in technology to improve transparency and traceability, scaling up holistic solutions by investing in models that address interconnected issues, strengthening trust, exploring more collaborative initiatives with a wide range of organisations and experts, and partnering with cocoa farmers and cooperatives so that they can build resilient farming businesses, take care of their families and protect natural resources.  

Editorial contact:
Editor: Kiran Grewal