Why Isn't Carob More Popular?

The problem is, it's always been compared (unfairly) to chocolate.

woven basket filled with dark brown carob tree pods

Boris SV / Getty Images

Just because one food looks like another doesn't mean it will taste the same. Take cauliflower rice, for instance. It can be used in place of rice in many dishes like fried rice or stuffed peppers. But no matter how much it looks like rice, it has none of the same flavors or properties of rice. (There are those who will disagree with me. I say they're fooling themselves.)

The same can be said of zoodles—zucchini cut into noodle-like strips with a spiralizer. But zoodles aren't spaghetti, no matter how much pasta sauce you pile on top. I actually like spiralized zucchini, but I never try to kid myself that it's spaghetti.

The same sentiment can be applied to carob, a food that looks remarkably like cocoa and has been touted as a substitute for chocolate. But just because carob in powder form looks like cocoa powder and can be substituted one for one in a recipe for cocoa powder doesn't mean the end result will taste anything like cocoa.

Health food proponents and recipe developers have tried to treat the two powders as one and the same over the decades, but chocolate lovers have just never bought it.

Carob Versus Cocoa

carob pods
These pods are ground into carob powder. (Photo: Anasteziia/Shutterstock)

Carob powder comes from the ground pods of a carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua), also known as locust bean or St. John's bread. (These latter names, Britannica says, come from the belief that the "locusts" sustaining John the Baptist in the desert, according to the Biblical story, were actually carob pods.) The trees are native to the Mediterranean region, although they now grow throughout North America because they were brought here in the mid-1800s.

Inside the pods are seeds that need to be removed in order for the powder to be made. Instructables demonstrates one method of creating carob powder by boiling the pods, cutting them in half, removing the seeds, drying the pods completely, and then grinding them into a powder. Other methods roast the pods before grinding to make their color darker, and therefore more closely resemble cocoa. Either way, the powder ends up looking almost identical to cocoa powder, especially when roasted, but does it taste like cocoa powder?

It does not. It has its own naturally sweet taste and it's a little nutty. Some people like it. Others do not. But if you taste carob powder next to cocoa powder, you'll realize the two are completely different foods. And although carob can be turned into carob chips that look like chocolate chips, if you put them in your cookies, everyone will know the difference.

Carob does have its benefits, though. It's considered by some to be healthier than cocoa. Healthline says it has lots of fiber, antioxidants, and, unlike cocoa, no caffeine. Scientific American expands on that, saying carob also lacks theobromine—another stimulant like caffeine, except that it affects the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems, rather than caffeine's stimulation of the central nervous system.

cacao beans, cocoa
This is what raw cacao beans look like before they're dried and roasted. (Photo: Olesia Bilkei/Shutterstock)

Cocoa powder is made from the beans of a cacao pod. The beans are fermented, dried, and roasted before being ground up into a bitter powder. In fact, plain carob powder may be preferable in a taste test next to unsweetened cocoa powder because the carob powder will be sweeter. But make no mistake—the difference in the taste between the two powders is great enough that substituting carob for cocoa will not result in something that tastes "just like chocolate."

Why Carob as a Chocolate Substitute Failed

carob, cake
This carob cake may taste great, but if it's passed off as chocolate cake then the first bite will taste like a betrayal. (Photo: vaaseenaa/Shutterstock)

It may already be obvious why carob as a chocolate substitute failed.

It doesn't taste like chocolate and no one wants to bite into a chocolate brownie and get something completely different. A 2018 New Yorker piece explains the evolution of carob in the United States, saying it failed to become a popular food because it "traumatized a generation." In the 1970s, children whose parents were members of the natural food movement felt betrayed when they were presented with carob-filled "chocolate" confections, only to realize they tasted nothing like chocolate. Their rejection was simply a reaction to that betrayal.

Maybe if carob wasn't passed off as tasting "just like chocolate," carob might have had a brighter future.

"No matter how much time passes," writes Jonathan Kauffman in the New Yorker, "those objects of childhood dread are difficult to see anew. Poor carob. I may never know how good you taste."

But if we can't give carob a bright future, maybe we can learn a lesson from its past. Don't betray the people you feed by lying to them about what they're eating in the name of healthy food. The first time I made fried rice with cauliflower rice, I didn't tell my son. To be fair, it was the first time I had used cauliflower rice in anything, and I had heard it tasted "just like rice." I wasn't trying to fool him, but I was curious if he would notice the difference. I was curious if I would, too.

We both noticed the difference the moment the food went in our mouths, and while I was expecting it, my son was not. In fact, he spat it out in surprise, thinking something was wrong with it. I should have been honest, but there's no going back now. To him, cauliflower rice will always taste like betrayal, and I doubt he will ever try it again. I can't say that I blame him.