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The Return of Carob

By Susan C. Olmstead

Remember carob? You probably do if you’re of a certain age. If you were around in the 1970s and 80s, you witnessed carob’s debut as a healthy chocolate alternative, appearing in “health food” stores and vegetarian cookbook recipes.

Carob was touted as a healthier version of chocolate, but it never quite caught on—maybe because no one was really fooled. Earthy and grainy, carob doesn’t especially taste like chocolate and eventually fell out of fashion as a chocolate substitute. However, now it’s reappearing as a “functional food,” popping up as an ingredient in items such as coffee alternatives and brownie mixes, as well as in powder form to add to recipes.

A “neglected legume of the Mediterranean Basin,” carob can be categorized as a “functional food” due to its high dietary fiber, mineral content and low-fat content. 

The carob tree, an evergreen, produces as its fruit a pod composed of 10 to 20 percent seeds. The pods are also known as “locusts,” and it is believed that the “locusts” the Bible describes St. John the Baptist eating were actually carob pods. This is why the pods are sometimes called “St. John’s Bread.”

Lore surrounding the legume includes the belief that the term “carat,” a unit of weight for precious stones, is derived from the word “carob,” thanks to an ancient practice. Uniformly sized carob seeds served as the standard weight for carats as measured by ancient goldsmiths, according to the late Ron Bracewell, a Stanford University professor. Today a carat is still measured by the weight of a carob seed—200 milligrams.

Carob pods are a “nutritional powerhouse,” containing vitamins and minerals that are not often found in plant foods, such as iron, magnesium, calcium, and certain B vitamins such as riboflavin and niacin.

Scientists in Turkey have determined that combining carob flour with chickpea and hazelnut flours improves the taste of gluten-free cookies. They say it can even enhance the flavor of organ meats.

Even if you were put off by carob when it debuted as chocolate-in-disguise, maybe thinking of it as a totally different ingredient with a subtle earthy flavor is worth giving this versatile pod another chance.

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