Chocolate is enjoyed and celebrated across the globe. One doesn’t have to be a chocoholic to like a warm hot cocoa or a piece of chocolate.
Stephanie Seege (UK/FI) is the founder of kAAKAO, an illegal plant-based chocolate brand sweetened with dates, and she is an eager advocate for improved food labelling laws. Stephanie invites us to meditate upon food, work, relaxation, relationship, family, self-worth, sleep and chocolate!
Stephanie, how do you define yourself?
As a food entrepreneur, working to improve the way we eat and live. Essentially, I’m a little obsessed by producing food that is better, tastier and environmentally friendly.
How did you get into food business?
I grew up being really sick, battling severe eczema, (food) allergies and asthma – I was always on some restrictive diet and had to stay away from most food groups. I’ve tried every medicine, every treatment and finally decided to try healing myself through food and a change in lifestyle with the help of an Indian doctor. I taught myself to cook in a new way: gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, refined sugar-free and wrote a cookbook about it. Along the way I invented kAAKAO.
What does kAAKAO do?
kAAKAO is a chocolate company that creates indulgent snacks from all natural plant-based goodness. I wanted to create a brand inclusive for all, regardless of eating preferences, and that’s how kAAKAO was born. Chocolate is one of the world’s most popular flavours, and most of us it it almost every day, so what better place to start than with this product that has seen very little innovation in the last decades, transforming it by swapping sugar for dates and dairy for coconut milk?!
You have said that “Our mission is to challenge and change the food industry for the better.” Can you elaborate on this?
There’s a lot of dodgy information out there – you know, “you need to drink (dairy) milk to get stronger bones” and consumers are lost in a sea of conflicting information and messages. As a food manufacturer I believe it’s our duty and responsibility to be clear and to educate our customers on what’s what. Shouldn’t we all want people to get healthier, hoping they live great, carefree lives?!
You have also said that “The new chocolate is made with cocoa, cocoa butter, coconut milk and dates. Those ingredients seem traditional, but the combination hasn’t been used in chocolate-making until now.” Can you elaborate on why the combination hasn’t been used in chocolate-making?
When we started, no other company had managed to successfully use dried dates instead of sugar in chocolate. The factories we spoke to all said it was impossible to create the result we were after. But it always takes just one to do the seemingly impossible, and we did that.
According to European legislators, chocolate by definition is a combination of cocoa and added sugar. Whilst dates contain naturally occurring fructose and glucose, they are not considered sugar and therefore kAAKAO bars are not chocolate. What do you think, why chocolate has been defined like this? Why is it important for you that the bars would be recognised as chocolate?
The EU laws are decades old. The sugar lobby probably does its part too. Maybe large companies don’t want products produced with better ingredients to be called chocolate. I don’t know. I assume that EU law makers are busy with other things (Brexit?) and I think that this law will eventually change when one of the big chocolate companies jumps on the bandwagon and demands change with slightly larger muscles.
There is an understanding that ethical, organic, vegan and similar products are mainly for a privileged audience as they can afford to pay for that type of product. How do you see the market?
I’m not a big fan of labels. They single people out and often make others feel like something is not for them. kAAKAO is vegan, because I love plant-based food and think that we would all feel great if we had more of it. However, the vegan aspect is not the important one – I like to talk about ‘inclusive’ instead, because it’s more descriptive of what the product does. Vegan/eco might be slightly more expensive right now, but in my life it means I do a lot of batch cooking, carry my own snacks (easy – kAAKAO!) that I buy in bulk and don’t spend much money on the go. So I think it’s different for everyone and a matter of priority. What do you want to do to take care of yourself? Vegan/eco food is MUCH cheaper than a lifetime of visiting doctors and taking medicine.
One can say that that people eat with their eyes. Some would also argue that packaging is as important as the product itself because it’s a crucial marketing and communication tool for a business. You have paid attention to the kAAKAO’s package (colourful, makes one smile, e.g. “There’s nothing better than a friend, unless it’s a friend with chocolate.”). What does package design mean for you?
I LOVE packaging. It’s probably one of my favourite parts of my work and something I really want to focus on in the future. I want kAAKAO to look like fun – I want to make you smile (great to hear that you do!) and I want to make you think. Why? Because better health starts with education, and with conversations around it.
How does one become a successful entrepreneur in the field of vegan business?
I have no idea, haha. ‘Success’ is an illusion. I believe I’m quite successful when I earn a living and feel safe financially, when I have good friends and close relationships with my family, when my health is balanced and when I sleep well. I’m working on it!
Why are people more and more interested in food and its impact on health?
I think we’re starting to realise that it might be beneficial for each and everyone of us to focus on preventative health, instead of leaving illness and health issues to the doctors to fix. We’re designed to be healthy and to function well. I mean, you don’t have to do anything to breathe, right? It’s effortless.
It’s just that we then get entangled in life, we’re stressed, we don’t sleep enough, we have negative thought-patterns and we feel stuck. Which is where things go wrong and illnesses seem to thrive in that environment.
You have said that “Through my own experience I’ve learned that it’s possible to treat, and even cure, many inexplicable health issues. The formula is naturally different for everyone and it tends to be a little slower than popping a pill. But it works.” How would you elaborate on that?
You can choose your thoughts. Do you see yourself as a sick person? That’s what you’ll be. Do you eat well? Do you give your body the nutrition it needs? Do you sleep enough? Do you do work that is satisfying? Are you angry and resentful most of the time? All of those factors will have an impact on your health. I realised that the balance was off in pretty much every area of my life (food, work, relaxation, relationship, family, self-worth, sleep etc) and I’ve spent the last 10 years working on them. I’m starting to reap the benefits. Slow, yes. Worth it? Yes, I’d do it all over again if I had to.
What creative professionals, food entrepreneurs, food designers, etc would you say have influenced you the most, and why?
Great question. One of my biggest role models is the researcher and writer Brené Brown, she inspires me in many areas of life raising awareness around shame, vulnerability and clear communication. I also admire many of my food entrepreneur friends all over the world, whom I’ve gotten to know during the last two years. We all struggle with the same things and it’s great to see them grow – because it only shows that it’s possible and it paves the way for the rest of us.
What’s next up for you?
Christmas in Finland – it’s magical. Then a little time off to reflect and charge my batteries. And next year I want to build team kAAKAO, launch more flavours and develop the brand. Go diving somewhere exotic and meet more incredible people. And eat chocolate.