Odds are that at some point, you’ve crossed paths with carob and wondered how carob is different from chocolate. Whether you spotted a bag of carob chips nestled among baking add-ins in your local health food store or found a can of carob powder perched alongside the dry ingredients, you probably noticed that it looked a heck of a lot like chocolate.
This is no accident, for though carob has long been used by Mediterranean cultures in sweets, drinks, and even folk remedies, it is marketed to Americans predominantly as a chocolate alternative.
Carob certainly is a dead-ringer for chocolate when processed into powder or chips and packaged just like our favorite cacao products – but how do the two really compare? Does carob taste like chocolate? Is it really a healthier option? How is carob different from chocolate, and – perhaps most importantly – how should we use it?
To answer these questions, first we need to back up and take a look at what the carob actually is.
What is Carob?
Carob (from either the Arabic “kharrub” or the Hebrew “harub”) is made from the fruit of Ceratonia siliqua, a flowering evergreen tree native to the Mediterranean. The tree’s fruit is a legume (picture a king-sized snow pea) that takes a full year to mature.
After harvest, the whole pod is dried or roasted before it is used in culinary applications.
We get carob powder from the fruit’s outer pod, while gum from the seeds is widely used as a thickening agent.
The entire fruit is used to make carob molasses (a decoction made by boiling dried carob fruit and reducing the resulting carob “juice”) and carob syrup (a sweetened and reduced carob decoction).
Carob’s earliest known use was in ancient Egypt, where – as evidenced by the carob-shaped hieroglyph for “nedjem,” meaning “sweet” – it came to represent all forms of sweetness. Further east, the carob tree became associated with wealth through a tradition of weighing gold and gemstones against its fruit. This practice is the origin of the word “carat,” which comes from the Greek “keration,” or “seed.”
The fruit also took on a spiritual significance in Judeo-Christian tradition, appearing in both the Talmud and the New Testament. Rabbi Haninah, John the Baptist, and the Prodigal Son are all, at some point, sustained by eating carob. From this association with John the Baptist, carob takes the popular names “locust bean” and “St. John’s Bread.”
To this day, carob continues to play a role in the cultural traditions of the wider Mediterranean. Often, it is consumed as a humble stand-in for more luxurious foods during times of fasting and reflection. In Malta, for example, carob syrup is mixed with honey to make sheets of tiny square karamelli tal-harrub, a Lenten caramel eaten in lieu of chocolate and other sweets.
Kharroub, a sweetened carob juice drink, is served during Ramadan in the Middle East, while throughout the Jewish diaspora, dried carob is traditionally eaten straight during the holiday of Tu B’Shevat. (This last practice is not for the faint of heart. In fact, one New York rabbi writes that the carob pod is “hard as a rock and tasteless as wood” with the smell of Limburger cheese!)
Carob didn’t make its way to the United States until the latter half of the twentieth century, when it slipped onto supermarket shelves in all its powder-and-chip glory. Here it is touted as a health food, a remedy, and, most of all, a stimulant-free chocolate substitute.
It is also a common ingredient in herbal “coffees” such as Teecchino (see an earlier post on Teeccino-inspired carob cupcakes with chicory, dates, figs, and almonds), the flavoring in “chocolate” dog treats, and a thickener in everything from salad dressing to canned pet food.
How is Carob Different From Chocolate?
If carob is most often used as a chocolate substitute, you may well wonder how carob is different than chocolate.
First off, carob pods and cacao beans grow on completely unrelated trees. While Ceratonia siliqua is native to the Mediterranean, Theobroma cacao grows in South America. The fruits of these trees are also processed differently.
While the entire carob bean is dried for use, cacao beans are traditionally fermented to reduce bitterness, intensify flavor, and break down phytic acid. After fermentation, only the seeds of the fruit are dried for further processing and consumption.
The chemical composition of the two plants is also vastly different. Cacao, even in its purest form, is calorie dense and high in fat, whereas unadulterated carob has no fat. (I’m talking about the powdered pod here – all bets are off when it’s made into things like carob chips replete with added sugar and oils.)
Carob, on the other hand, has significantly more carbohydrates than chocolate and is naturally sweeter. These differences make perfect sense when you consider the parts of each fruit being consumed: seeds are full of natural fats, while seed casings are fibrous and carb-rich.
Another major difference in the composition of these two foods is the presence or absence of stimulants. Chocolate contains both theobromine and caffeine, whereas carob contains neither. This means that carob won’t give you an instant energy boost, but that it is also free of pesky side effects such as heart palpitations, insomnia, and the jitters. For children, pregnant women, and those sensitive to caffeine, this lack of stimulants is what makes carob an appealing alternative to chocolate.
What Does Carob Taste Like?
For bakers – and for all beings in possession of taste buds – perhaps the most pressing question is how the two compare in terms of flavor. Is carob a convincing substitute for chocolate? In a word: NO. Sandra Boynton, well-known children’s writer and author of Chocolate: The Consuming Passion, says it best:
Some consider carob to be a reasonable substitute for chocolate because it has some similar nutrients (calcium, phosphorus) and because it can – when combined with vegetable fat and sugar – be made to approximate the color and consistency of chocolate. Of course, the same arguments can also be made in favor of dirt. (27)
Carob shouldn’t take this assessment too personally, as Boynton also compares white chocolate to the paper on which her book is printed. Carob powder, chips, and molasses may not taste of cacao, but they do have a sweet, rich flavor all their own.
Just know that while you can sneak silken tofu into a chocolate cream pie or ditch refined sugar for fruit to sweeten a cake with no one the wiser, you aren’t going to pass off carob chip cookies for the gooey, chocolatey classic.
Is Carob Healthier Than Chocolate?
One question that many have about carob is whether it is better for you than chocolate. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.
In their purest forms, both cacao and carob are fairly nutritious. Both contain antioxidants and a variety of vitamins and minerals. However, chocolate’s high fat content makes it a poor choice for those on low-fat diets, while carob’s high sugar content makes it a no-no for those trying to eat fewer carbs.
Carob has a decent amount of fiber and contains tannins that act as an astringent in the digestive system, helping to clear out toxins. These tannins make carob a good choice for those with malabsorption syndromes such as Celiac Disease.
Since stimulants like caffeine and theobromine can irritate a sensitive digestive tract, carob is also better for those experiencing any kind of acute or chronic GI distress. It may also be a wiser option for those with high blood pressure or for pregnant women seeking to limit their caffeine intake.
Both carob and chocolate contain B vitamins, though carob contains slightly more. Carob is also significantly higher in calcium than chocolate, but chocolate contains more iron, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium. Chocolate’s antioxidant content is higher than carob’s, and it contains stimulants that many people find desirable.
The bottom line? Both carob and chocolate, in their purest forms, have a place in a healthy diet, though individual health concerns might prompt you to choose one over the other. It should also be noted that the benefits of both foods are often canceled out by the addition of excess sweetener and fat. Chocolate is especially prone to this nutrient nullification, so when buying cocoa products, look for low sugar and high cocoa content.
How Do You Use Carob?
If you are convinced, as I am, that carob deserves a place in our pantries, you might be wondering what to do with it. Carob can be used:
- As an alternative to chocolate. Carob powder can be used as a straight substitute for cocoa or cacao powder. Carob chips can also be thrown into recipes in place of chocolate chips, but they won’t behave the same. Melting them successfully is a task achieved only through great difficulty, with careful timing, added oil, and the favor of the baking gods. Carob is simply not as fatty as chocolate and doesn’t respond the same way to heat.
- As a sweetener. Carob syrup can be used in place of other liquid sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey, or agave.
- With chocolate. If you aren’t looking to eliminate chocolate from the equation, carob can also be used, much like espresso powder, alongside cacao to intensify chocolate flavor.
- As a home remedy. Outside of baking, you can try carob as a safe and soothing digestive aid. At least one study has shown carob powder to be an effective treatment for acute diarrhea in children. Some claim that carob is also effective in easing pregnancy-induced nausea. Dr. Andrew Weil recommends that carob powder be mixed with applesauce (another easily digestible food) to make the remedy more palatable.
- In dog treats. If you like to make your own dog treats, or feel compelled to bake your dog a birthday cake, carob is your best bet for “chocolate” flavor without theobromine, which is toxic to canines. Added bonus: your dog sure won’t know the difference between carob and chocolate!
These are all solid options for putting your new can of carob powder to the test. Yet in my opinion, the best use for carob is not in recipes where it is asked to stand in for something else, but in those designed to showcase its unique flavor. Carob-based “chocolate” desserts inevitably lead to disappointment, but viewed as a unique ingredient, carob has much to offer.
For recipes that celebrate carob in its own right, try:
Carob Cupcakes with Chicory, Dates, Figs, and Almonds (You’ll need a lot of unique ingredients beyond carob, but it’s worth trying.)