When I started my career in chocolate in England, nobody in the industry paid any attention to the topic of food allergies,” says Simon Lester, co-founder of Pascha Chocolates. “At that time, the focus of the chocolate industry was two-fold: finding innovative ways of experiencing chocolate through product and ingredient complexity and discovering new ways of reducing costs while not compromising taste. It was the same story all over the food industry.”
It was in 2013, however, when Lester and his wife personally discovered how large the food gap involving allergies was. Both of their daughters have varying food allergies, some of them life-threatening if triggered. In addition, Lester found out — after testing — he also has allergic responses to milk and some nuts.
“I can attest from first-hand experience that it only takes trace amounts of an allergic ingredient to trigger anaphylactic shock – the worst form of a body’s allergic response,” he says.
While the cause of the emerging trend of food allergies is unknown, there are no known cures other than avoidance. That means finding products that are made in an ultra-clean, simple way that systematically avoids all potential contact with specific allergens.
As Courtenay Vuchnich, co-founder and Lester’s spouse, points out, rarely do consumers thinks of chocolate as being a major source of food allergens. Yet, on the back of most chocolate bars, one almost always discovers declarations of trace elements of many of the top eight allergens: peanuts, milk, tree nuts, soy, wheat, gluten and even egg.
And as Lester emphasizes, “The problem with these ingredients is that once they are in a chocolate facility they are almost impossible to eliminate with any degree of certainty.”
That’s why Lester and Vuchnich created Toronto-based Pascha Chocolate – with a mission to make the purest, safest chocolate without any allergenic ingredients.
“Absolutely pure and absolutely delicious, but more importantly, without any trace of any of the eight major food allergens,” is the company’s mantra. Below, Vuchnich shares her thoughts on a range of topics.
If you were stranded on a deserted island with only one kind of candy, what would it be?
My favorite treat is our new orange-flavored chocolate made with organic rice milk! My daughters were wrestling me for the initial samples. It’s dairy-free, and I love the taste and the hit of orange.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I have always been passionate about design — packaging, retail, industrial and fashion. Collecting images and ideas from books, magazines and our environment. And storing them away for the future use, I hoped to design interesting products when I “grew up.”
What issues concern you most about the confectionery industry and why?
As you know, the industry is controlled by a few very large companies. I wish it was easier for smaller businesses to launch and distribute new products into the complex marketplace.
What is your pet peeve?
I struggle with restaurants, which are not consistent and upfront with their food allergen procedures and policies. As a parent of a child with a severe food allergy, we depend on reliable answers to our questions.
If given the chance to choose anyone, with whom would you like to collaborate?
Jamie Oliver – no question. I’m a big fan of his Food Movement Campaign, ensuring children have access to good nutritious food and an understanding of the importance of nutrition as part of a healthy lifestyle.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The best business advice came from my first boss, design and packaging guru Ted Zittell, who said, “The store shelf never lies.” Be obsessed with the retail shelf, track exciting product and design innovation and evaluate how it impacts the category.
What excites you most about your job?
I love meeting our customers and hearing their stories, how they’ve searched for truly delicious, high quality treats, which they can enjoy completely safely. They are so loyal and supportive of our small business and help spread the word to their friends.