Nichole Dandrea is a dietician, yoga instructor, and the chocolatier behind Nicobella Organics, a healthy and vegan chocolate company in Los Angeles, California. I was introduced to her incredible chocolate truffles at the Chocolate Invitational Festival in the fall of 2012 in Malibu, California. Aside from producing delicious bites of chocolate, her values for Nicobella Organics are wholesome, transparent, and with the greatest intentions.
Here is her story.
What sparked the interest and passion for chocolate?
Nichole Dandrea: I have always had an immense passion for the beauty of colorful, whole, unprocessed foods as well as their energizing and healing effects on the body. However, rich chocolate desserts, especially creamy chocolate truffles, were my weakness. When researchers started to tout dark chocolate for its health benefits, I was beyond excited, knowing that it was a much more pure form of indulgence. Cacao, coming from a plant, fits naturally into a whole food diet. I started to experiment with tasting different origins and percentages. At that time I still had a love for rich creamy truffles but couldn’t find any that started with just pure dark chocolate. A lot of the ingredient labels started with cream, butter and sugar. That’s when I had the idea of creating a decadent truffle made with dark chocolate then adding whole food ingredients to make a high antioxidant, healthy indulgence.
From an entrepreneurial standpoint, how did you get Nicobella off the ground?
ND: The support from family, friends and the food manufacturing community were essential to getting nicobella off the ground. It began, like many food start-ups, in my kitchen where I tested recipes at night after working at the hospital as a dietitian during the day. I experimented with six different truffle flavors and had chocolate sampling parties with my friends and family. Once we were satisfied with the recipes for the six flavors we brought them to local farmers markets to see if they would sell. (At that time we had all of the same flavors except the ginger green tea, which was wasabi green tea!) They surprisingly sold very well at the market, which is when I thought “hmm…maybe I could pursue this as a real business”.
My background as a dietitian did not prepare me for the manufacturing industry, nor did it teach me how to work with chocolate. I attended chocolatier school where I gained a new profound respect for both manufacturers and chocolatiers. Working with chocolate was such a delicate process that required much more food science knowledge (than the two classes I took while training to be a dietitian) and a lot of patience. I started to attend food trade shows where I naively asked every chocolate company to help make our healthy truffles. Most of them required such huge volumes that I did not need at that time. One chocolate company that really stood out for me was Theo Chocolate. Their delicious organic chocolate, Fair Trade values and the friendly Theo team seemed like a perfect fit for nicobella. After several times of asking (begging) the folks at Theo to work with my little line of truffles they finally agreed to give it a try. It took us about nine months of taking my recipes out of the kitchen and recreating them in their chocolate factory, while keeping the same nutritional profile, before we were ready to bring them to market. It was with Theo’s willingness, guidance and creativity that I was able to officially launch nicobella in October of 2009.
How does being a dietitian and yoga instructor influence the values of Nicobella?
ND: Nutritionally, it is important that the chocolate we use is 70% or greater and made with whole food, high antioxidant ingredients. We do not use any flavorings, additives or fillers. For example, our blueberry truffle is made with 70% dark chocolate and the ganache has whole blueberries that give it a blueberry burst. For the pumpkin truffle we start with whole pumpkin seeds to make pumpkin seed butter. I want folks to indulge in a rich piece of chocolate and feel enlivened by it, not guilty or weighed-down. Also, many taste-testers say our truffles taste rich and not sweet. That is because we add more of the whole food ingredient and less sugar. The Theo chocolate that we use to enrobe our truffles is 70% organic and Fair Trade and made with organic cane sugar. We sweeten the ganache center minimally with either organic brown rice syrup or organic raw agave nectar. We want to let dark chocolate be the catalyst and make the whole food flavors be the focus.
Yoga has instilled core values within me that are now an essential part of nicobella. It’s helped me to live yoga off the mat, not just on the mat. Yoga instills things like compassion, kindness, and non-violence that are all a part of nicobella. For example, using only Fair Trade chocolate or working directly with the farmers is essential. We also do what we can to preserve the environment, such as using FSC certified packaging for our truffles or dissolvable packing peanuts for our shipments. Probably the most important thing to me, personally, is working with animal organizations. We donate quite a bit of chocolate to help raise money for our furry friends at their events and auctions. I am most grateful for the community we are building around nicobella. Being a vegan, eco-conscious chocolate company has allowed us to work with some amazing folks that have the same core values.
“…it is important that the chocolate we use is 70% or greater and made with whole food, high antioxidant ingredients.”
Where is the chocolate sourced from?
ND: The Theo Chocolate that we use for our truffles is from their farm in Ecuador. For our munch products we use Kallari dark chocolate. It is a cooperative, also based in Ecuador, which started with fifty families operating their cacao farm about fifteen years ago. They received help from their community and the farm has now grown to over 850 families. They have built this amazing sustainable business that fulfills the families’ basic needs without logging their rain forests or selling their land. And their chocolate is so pure and rich. They also have opportunities where visitors can stay and work on their farm!
Walk us through the process from experimenting to a final product, like a chocolate truffle.
ND: Experimenting initially happens in our test kitchen. We love blending chocolate with anything healthy. We get ideas, run to our local natural food store and grab a small amount of ingredients for experimenting. We start by mixing chocolate with those ingredients, playing with different flavors, adding a little sea salt, or testing how the chocolate reacts with certain ingredients. We write the recipe down, taste test the small samples and take notes on aroma, texture, and taste. Once we find something we like we hand over the recipe to Theo who tests it in their kitchen. We work with them on ways to improve texture and taste while maintaining the same nutritional integrity. Once we agree on all of the variables we start the manufacturing process!
Chocolate is often seen as a guilty-pleasure full of sugar and processed ingredients. How can chocolate be nutritious and integrated into a healthy diet?
ND: Easily! First, it’s important to eat whole, unprocessed foods at least 85% of the time. If the base of your diet is filled with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein (preferably plant-based!) then a little dark chocolate each day is perfectly healthy. Chocolate, similar to tea and wine, is choc-full of antioxidants and has been shown to increase circulation, which in turn helps with blood pressure, reducing clots, and increasing brain-power! That said it’s extremely important to look at the ingredient label. There are so many amazing dark chocolate options that range from 55% to 100% dark chocolate. Look for chocolate that has minimal ingredients and is without fillers or additives. There are also many deliciously healthy indulgences now available, like our truffles. I personally have a few walnut truffles every day to help get my omega-3’s. Our walnut truffle has more walnuts that it does chocolate making it a super-creamy, nutritional treat that can very easily fit into any healthy eating plan!
To learn more about Nichole Dandrea and Nicobella Organics, visit nicobellaorganics.com.