Peanut butter without the peanuts. Olive oil without the olives. Coffee without the coffee beans. And chocolate without the chocolate.
For consumers who are trying to lower their carbon footprint, want to avoid supporting exploitative global labor practices or simply have food allergies, alternatives like these are now on the table—or soon will be.
The producers of many of these food alternatives are based right here in the Bay Area. We reached out to some and asked for some samples, so we could taste-test the future of food.
Here’s how some alternatives to peanut butter, coffee, chocolate and vegetable oil stacked up when compared to the original source material.
San Francisco’s Compound Foods makes a cold brew called Minus. Produced without coffee beans, the beverage is created by roasting upcycled pits, roots and seeds from foods such as dates, grapes and chicory, fermenting these ingredients (without producing alcohol) and then adding caffeine to re-create the flavor and stimulating effect of coffee.
Compound Foods CEO Maricel Saenz created Minus with climate change in mind. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, it takes 140 liters of water to grow, process and transport enough beans for a single cup of coffee. On average, growing just one kilogram of Arabica coffee can produce the equivalent of 15.33 kilograms of carbon dioxide. Saenz believes that cutting out the beans can allow coffee drinkers to experience everything they love about coffee, “but with a lot less impact.”
Our taste testers, myself and Standard reporting intern Olivia Cruz Mayeda, found that while Minus’ coffee looks just like cold brew—its dark brown coloring is spot on—its taste put it in a class of its own for a chilled caffeinated beverage. Mayeda picked up notes of maple syrup while I likened its flavoring to cherry cola. We both agreed that this beverage was a tad sweeter in scent and taste than a traditional cold brew, but we didn’t mind that the beans were gone.
Verdict: If you’re looking for a sweeter brew that cuts out the intercontinental transportation of coffee beans, give Minus a try.
Oakland-based Voyage Foods offers a trio of substitute foods—including a bean-free coffee, a cocoa-free chocolate and peanut-free peanut butter. Here’s the rundown and how they rated.
Like Minus, Voyage Foods offers a bean-free canned cold brew marketed as a sustainable alternative to traditional coffee. It’s made with upcycled grains and legumes.
“The production process is similar to traditional coffee manufacturing with some small modifications, with no cellular agriculture or fermentation used,” a rep from the company told me in an email.
I found Voyage’s cold brew substitute to have a stronger, earthier coffee smell and taste compared to Minus’ sweeter scent and fruity flavoring. I genuinely could not distinguish the difference in taste between Voyage’s beverage and a conventional cold brew. However, we did notice that Voyage’s cold brew sported a lighter brown hue than Minus’ or traditional cold brew’s darker cola coloring. Meanwhile, Mayeda thought Voyage’s cold brew tasted “paint-ish.” Ouch!
Verdict: It really comes down to how you prefer or take your coffee. Black coffee drinkers may enjoy Voyage’s earthier brew with more bitter notes. Those with more sensitive palates or who favor sweeter coffees may want to opt for Minus instead.
Something was a bit off with Voyage’s chocolate alternative. The thin chocolate-like squares made from upcycled grape seeds and sunflower flour had the bite and consistency of chocolate—it even melted like chocolate in our hands!—but the flavors didn’t quite live up to the sweet’s iconic, one-of-a-kind taste.
In short, we got end-of-the-world vibes.
“This is like bunker chocolate to me,” Mayeda said. I was personally thrown off by the nutty, sunflower seed taste.
Again, Voyage is focused on creating a chocolate-like substitute to get around some of the more environmentally harmful aspects of the chocolate industry.
“Whether you're looking at water use, land use, greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation or labor, it's one of those commodities—like whaling in the late 1800s—we just shouldn't be doing what we're what we're doing, the way we're doing it,” Adam Maxwell, the CEO of Voyage Foods, said.
While we applaud the environmentalism, we’re a little scared of what this chocolate-free future might look like …
Verdict: The texture of Voyage’s cocoa-free squares was impressive, but it might be worth trying to make the real thing more sustainable, rather than trying to develop a chocolate substitute.
While Voyage’s coffee bean-free and cocoa-free alternatives aim to reduce the environmental impact of coffee and chocolate respectively, the brand’s peanut-free alternative to peanut butter (made from roasted sunflower kernels, sunflower oil, grape seeds, cane sugar and a legume blend) is intended for families and individuals with peanut allergies.
As of 2020, the U.S. had about 1.8 million children with peanut allergies. And according to a 2021 study by the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, nearly 3% of U.S. adults, or 4.5 million people, are allergic to peanuts. With that mind, Voyage wants to offer a peanut butter alternative for kids and households or schools where the beloved spread could be dangerous.
Our taste test found that whether you like this spread or not may depend on the kind of peanut butter or spread you grew up with. For Mayeda, Voyage’s peanut-free peanut butter harkened back to the seed butters of her childhood growing up in health food-conscious Oakland and Berkeley.
“This is like a health-food-store peanut butter, unprocessed, ” Mayeda said.
For me, I had a little trouble swallowing the peanut butter-like substance after years of developing a fondness for Skippy, which I still buy religiously. The spread’s sunflower seed notes definitely overwhelmed my palate.
However, we both applauded the texture and consistency of Voyage’s spread, which was definitely creamier and smoother than we both expected.
Verdict: It’s good enough as a peanut butter spread replacement. As Mayeda observed: “If you’re a kid who can’t eat [peanut butter], I would have this with jelly in a sandwich or with a banana or something. It definitely works.”
The cultured oil by San Mateo’s Zero Acre Farms is intended to be a more sustainable cooking replacement for culinary oils such as soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower seed oil and avocado oil. According to Zero Acre Farms’ website, its product uses 88% less water than palm oil, 90% less water than sunflower oil and 300 times less water than olive oil. It also promises to be a healthier alternative to traditional vegetable oils.
Made through a fermentation process in facilities akin to those used by large-scale beer manufacturers, Zero Acre’s cultured oil starts off as an oil culture, but instead of churning out beer, sourdough or wine, the culture eats non-GMO sugar cane and turns those sugars into fats. The culture is then pressed into oil.
Zero Acre Farms co-founder and CEO Jeff Nobbs says that the company’s cultured oil is “not intended to replace a beautiful extra virgin olive oil” that you dip bread into. But cultured oil could be useful for cooking at high heat because of its high smoke point and offer a more neutral-tasting option for cooking than traditional olive oil.
Nobbs believes cultured oil is a “viable solution” because it’s a one-to-one replacement for some of the country's most prevalent cooking oils that “doesn’t require compromise or sacrifice,” Nobbs said.
“So there’s no, ‘This almost takes like soybean oil,’” he said.
For the purposes of our kitchen-less taste test, we did dip focaccia bread into the cultured oil—sorry Jeff!—and we found the cultured oil’s clean and buttery taste to be very pleasing and easy on the taste buds. We were also impressed with cultured oil’s packaging, a sleek aluminum can that looks very Space Age-y, as perhaps a cooking oil of the future should.
We did, however, cringe a little at the price point—$29.99 per bottle—which the company says it’s working to bring down.
Verdict: If you’re looking for a cooking oil that aims to be better for the environment—and can afford the price tag—Zero Acre Farm’s cultured oil is worth a shot.
Olivia Cruz Mayeda contributed additional reporting for this story.
Christina Campodonico can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org