Mesquite is poised to become the greener, healthier 'chocolate'

This plentiful desert shrub offers a robust nutritional profile and sustainable harvesting that could make it a rival to cacao. But does it pass the taste test?

Nick Collias, Contributing writer

July 2, 2024

4 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Chocolate has land-use impacts and a carbon footprint rivaling beef and coffee.
  • Mesquite isn’t related to cacao but offers a complex, chocolatey flavor profile, plus fiber and no caffeine.
  • Two brothers with years of food industry experience created a mesquite-based bar to help “fix chocolate.”

Brothers Ben and Bob Schultz knew they had a unique combined skill set to tackle big challenges in the food and beverage industry. The question was where they would direct their energies.

Ben has a background in product development, operations and supply chains. Bob has a long history in food science, fermentation and plant-based meats. The pair knew they wanted to fix a big “problem,” and they landed on chocolate.

The chocolate industry, Ben explained to Food & Beverage Insider, is rivaled only by beef for its deforestation and land use impacts. Like coffee, it has a massive carbon footprint due to usually being harvested, processed and sold on different continents. But unlike beef, dairy and coffee, almost no sustainable, tasty alternatives to chocolate are available on the market.

The brothers were looking for a widely available plant that could provide chocolate’s decadence and flavor, plus equal or better nutrition, but without its sustainability downsides. And they found it in the pods from the desert shrub mesquite.

Now, they’re trying to spread the gospel of mesquite in America through their startup, Mez Foods.

What’s so special about mesquite?

Mesquite encompasses more than 40 species of short, shrubby trees spread across arid lands in North and South America, East Asia and North Africa. The plants thrive and proliferate in harsh terrain with very little water and without fertilizer, and as they do, they naturally improve soil quality and sequester carbon.

“It’s super-hardy, very weather tolerant and likes to grow in places that we don't even really think of as agriculturally productive,” Ben said.

Those are some big plusses that drew the Schultzes’ attention, but they’re hardly the first people to notice mesquite. The plant has been both a textile supply and a staple crop for indigenous peoples for thousands of years. While sometimes used as an alternative flour, culinary mesquite use is uncommon today — aside from the wood being used in charcoal production.

“In many cases it’s considered a nuisance plant,” Ben explained. “This isn’t exactly the sort of thing that we could look up on the USDA website and find a bunch of information. Most of our sources were academic.” 

The big question is, of course, how does it taste? Surprisingly sweet, Ben says. “It has this really amazing flavor profile. It’s sweet without being bitter, super chocolatey, and with a little bit of cinnamon and toasted coconut. It’s got some surprisingly complex flavors reminiscent of a higher-quality chocolate bar, and it’s just very rich and beautiful.” 

Despite its chocolate-like flavor, mesquite isn’t related to cacao. It’s a legume, while the cacao “bean” is the seed of a fruit. But its natural sweetness means it doesn’t require nearly the same level of added sugar as bitter cacao to become palatable. It’s also high in fiber, allergen-free, and free of stimulants like caffeine or theobromine.

The brothers knew they had something. The question was how to transform this promising legume into something familiar and craveable.

Dialed in through in-person testing

The bar the Schultzes created under their brand Mez Foods looks, smells and even melts like chocolate. It utilizes illipe butter rather than cocoa butter as a fat, plus fermented pea protein and a short list of sustainably sourced ingredients. Each bar contains 6-12 grams of protein, 6 g of fiber and around 15 g of sugar — just 5 g added beyond what the mesquite brings on its own.

“The nutrition profile, when you look at the relative amounts of those macronutrients, is really more like what you’d want in a complete meal,” Ben said.
But does this treat pass the taste test? Initially, the Schultzes dug into some traditional formal product testing befitting their industry backgrounds. “But we kept finding that it wasn’t answering the question that we wanted answered most, which was, ‘Would you buy this bar right now, at this price?’” Ben recalled. 

Their alternative product needed a broader and more interactive audience. And they found it in Chicago’s thriving farmers markets. Ben said he and Bob are regulars at a number of markets, which they’ve found to be invaluable in gathering feedback, brainstorming iterations and refining their product.

“People gave us feedback instantaneously on what was working or wasn’t working for them and why,” Ben said. “This actually led to a lot of changes in our formulation or product portfolio.”

Currently Mez Foods offers three bars: a dairy-free milk chocolate taste-alike called “Mellow Milk,” plus a peanut chocolate bar and a “Warm Spices” bar with cinnamon and cardamom. And while all are available direct-to-consumer through their website, Ben says their highest priority remains the Chicago community that helped them bring the bar to life.

“We are hyper-focused on building our market in Chicago first,” he explained. “We want to be the Chicago confectionary of choice and be very physically present in farmer’s markets and local retailers. This gives us the ability to do sampling events to make ourselves apparent on the shelf for this group of people. And hopefully we can create customers that are hyper-engaged, and then take that model and go to other cities.”

About the Author(s)

Nick Collias

Contributing writer

Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor. 

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