Carob; The Unsung Hero

 

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Carob: you either love it or leave it. Most of us first heard of carob in its powdered form, the dark brown chocolate-coloured powder made from the ground pods of the carob tree. This imposter occasionally made it into our household as an ersatz form of cocoa. A virtuous chocolate, as it were. And indeed, carob is a small wonder.

Botanically, carob is a member of the pea family (hint: pods) and hails from the Mediterranean. The flowering evergreen shrub can grow to about fifty feet in height and still grows wild in Portugal, Italy, much of Iberia, Greece and Turkey; it is these countries that cultivate and produce the bulk of carob to this day, four thousand years after the plant was first harvested for its pods, the fruit the female plants produce which are technically legumes. Naturally sweet, the ancient Egyptians actually used the pod as the hieroglyph denoting sweet!

 

Dried Carob pods on white background

carob pods

 

Carob in its processed forms-powdered, chips, syrups- seems to be the answer to the plea, “If only there were a healthy form of chocolate; if only chocolate were good for you.” And for sure, in many baking applications carob does satisfy as a cocoa substitute, and it is good for you, but it has a flavor profile and attributes that should be esteemed all on their own, chocolate be darned. The pods are dried and often roasted and then ground into a powder which is often used as a substitute for cocoa, as it has a somewhat similar taste and is naturally sweet. Carob contains no caffeine or theobromine, the substance that is toxic to dogs, so carob treats are totally safe for both dog and master (or master and human). There’s a lot of nutrition in that there pod! Carob is packed with vitamins and minerals: per weight it has three times the calcium as milk, and is an excellent source of zinc, potassium, phosphorous, riboflavin, vitamins E and K. As an added bonus, as well as being high in antioxidants and fibre carob is gluten-free.

 

ground into powder

ground into powder

 

And carob is not only harvested as a health-nut’s cocoa. You’ve heard of locust bean gum?  Relax, this not the Plague Of Locusts locust. Carob pods are also known as locust beans, and some biblical scholars posit that this is the locust that John The Baptist survived on in the wild, hence its other nickname, St. John’s Bread. Harvested from the pod seeds, LBG is a thickening agent that appears in many foods, you will often see it on the list of ingredients in items like yogurt, ice creams, salad dressings and other foodstuffs where emulsification and stabilization is required. LBG is totally safe and even good for you, and studies have linked it to controlling blood sugar and lowering cholesterol.

Next time you have a hankering for baking a chocolate treat why not try on carob for size, it’s been part of our diet for four thousand years, and continues to nourish-and sweeten our lives to this day. Here’s  a simple little recipe to get your day off to a super healthy start, delicious muffins that contain the goodness of bananas, applesauce and our unsung hero, carob.

 

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