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Spotlight: Alan Perlstein, Founder and CEO of California Cultured

Published on
Apr 14, 2023
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Alan Perlstein started working in a tiny cell-cultured fish lab in Long Island 17 years ago, back in the early days of cell-culture technology. He launched his first food tech company Joywell Foods (formerly Miraculex), where he commercialized protein sweetened foods. When he saw tension brewing between the huge demand for chocolate and the sustainable/ethical issues surrounding it, he knew he had to look towards something bigger and thus, California Cultured was born.

California Cultured’s mission is to bring about a new age of sustainable chocolate and coffee by growing, creating and scaling the most authentically delicious cocoa and coffee products through cellular agriculture. We are creating a product that is 100% free from deforestation and slavery, and nourishing for people and the planet. We want to preserve the foods we love and make them healthier, easier to grow and able to last many lifetimes

Can you tell us a bit about what led you to starting California Cultured and why it’s so important to you?

When I began my career, my goal was to help as many people as possible. My undergrad research helped me to find my way to one of the first labs working on cell cultured technology. There, I became enlightened about the harmful exploitations of people, animals and the environment due to our broken food system, and discovered that cell cultured technology is a way to help solve all of these issues! This was 20 years ago and while I attempted to start a cell cultured company back then, the technology was still considered science fiction to most. 

From there, I accelerated my career by working in different pharma/fermentation labs. After which, I started Miraculex (now known as Oobli Foods), a company focused on developing better tasting, healthier, high-intensity sweetening proteins, which we would formulate with different foods. I bootstrapped that company, starting it out of a basement in Harlem. Eventually, we developed successful prototypes and managed to get funding from some of the most prestigious venture capital firns and food companies in the world. During the building of the company, I was exposed to the ugly reality and depressing future of chocolate and coffee production.

As I began researching more about chocolate and coffee, I was horrified to learn that these industries are built around the enslavement and exploitation of people, as well as destructive agricultural practices that have scarred the face of the earth. Capitalizing on these crops led to the devastation of tribes, the extinction of many species of animals and the loss of hundreds of forests and jungles all around the world. As these industries grew, they gained enough control in chocolate and coffee growing countries that they have been able to manipulate the vast majority of the population to continue to grow these crops and be trapped in the perpetual cycle of poverty. At the beginning of this century, more efforts were made to fix these inherent problems, but they have failed consistently year after year.

In 2020, I left Oobli to start California Cultured because I saw the problems in the chocolate and coffee industries accelerating, and wanted to take the opportunity to rebuild them to be more sustainable and ethical. 

When many people think about cellular agriculture, they immediately think of lab grown meat and cultured dairy. You are working on cell based chocolate and coffee. Can you explain why that was the area you wanted to pursue?

After I learned about the horrifying history of chocolate and coffee, I found it impossible to ignore. I knew I had to do something, and with my extensive background in cell culture tech, I saw that as the only solution to produce these crops, sustainably, ethically and at scale.

For those who may not already know, can you share some of the harmful effects of the current production methods of chocolate and coffee? Both from an ethical and environmental perspective.

To meet the massive production required to make the chocolate and coffee industries viable, they need a large amount of inexpensive labor and land that can be exploited in an environment where laws are not enforced. This incentivizes slavery, forced labor and poverty based wages. As a result, a large contingent of the population in chocolate and coffee growing countries suffers from generational poverty. 

Most of the world’s chocolate and coffee are grown under the worst agricultural practices. Practices like slash-and-burn on virgin forests, monocropping large amounts of land and applying dangerous fertilizers/pesticides that are administered by children are just some of the issues. These practices have resulted in the emergence of many extinction-level plant pathogens such as coffee rust and cocoa swollen root.

When you think about the current way the world produces its chocolate and coffee, do you see that as a crisis? How do you think about the importance of solving that problem, on a human level?

We see the way in which they are produced as a crisis for people, animals and the environment. The amount of child slaves has doubled over the last 20 years, the amount of clearcutting of forests has accelerated five times over, and there are at least two primate extinctions and ten insect extinctions that were part of a healthy ecosystem that is disappearing. Solving these problems is of incredible importance to us and is our underlying mission. 

Can you share how you are able to produce chocolate and coffee that is identical on a molecular level to traditional chocolate and coffee? How does that process work, from start to finish?

Plant cell culture technology is a relatively old way of generating cells for a variety of uses. Traditionally, the technology has been used for either plant breeding strategies or to produce recombinant proteins. Advances in multiple related biological industries - cell-cultured meats, fermentation technologies, advanced biological plant engineering - coupled with advances in computation and new tools have made it possible to make these foods with a fraction of the R&D fees previously required. 

Our process works by first selecting varieties with the correct metabolomic profiles. When we have identified cultivars with the right metabolomic properties, we establish tissue cultures from the correct cells. Then we transform the tissue into an embryonic state by feeding the cells different plant extracts and screen for desired molecules. Potential candidates then get screened further through optimized suspension/liquid growth. 

After that, the process is the same as traditional chocolate and coffee. We ferment our cocoa cells with microbes until the right flavors are achieved, then we can roast and grind them. 

Throughout every step of our process, we track metabolites and flavors to make sure all the correct compounds are being produced. In the end, our products are chemically identical to traditional chocolate and coffee. 

What obstacles do you see California Cultured needing to overcome in order to see enormous adoption and a shift in behavior around how people think about where they get their chocolate and coffee from?

Many consumers are already okay with the concept of eating cell-cultured foods, and most of the population is already consuming products from a lab in one way or another. For instance, the production of our chocolate and coffee at scale will be similar to how beer is made. There might be some efforts needed to help people realize this truth, but we don’t see it as a significant obstacle. 

When you think about the future, what excites you most about what you are building?

The possibility to remove slavery and deforestation from the chocolate and coffee industries is something we are looking to achieve while producing more sustainable and better-for-you food products. We want the billions of people who consume chocolate and coffee to feel confident in their choices, and ensure the core building blocks of human happiness are intact for a long time to come. 

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