When your hippie mother fed it to you in the ’70s, she thought carob was a miracle replacement for chocolate. And it is ever so slightly healthier in a few respects. Unlike cocoa, carob does not contain caffeine or theobromine, another mild stimulant that actually elevates mood in humans but is the reason large quantities of chocolate are dangerous to dogs and cats. (They metabolize the chemical more slowly than we do, so it can build up in their bodies, poisoning them). People who are allergic to chocolate can generally eat carob without a problem (as can dogs and cats).
Carob powder is naturally sweeter and lower in fat than cocoa powder. However, the fat and sugar added to both powders to turn them into something tasty wipes out those differences. “The total fat and calorie content of carob and cocoa in the candy form [is] typically the same,” says Dr. Amy E. Griel, a postdoctoral intern in dietetics at Pennsylvania State University. What’s more, cocoa is high in stearic acid, a saturated fat that does not raise cholesterol levels, while carob “chocolate” is often made with palm or coconut oils, which are known to raise cholesterol. Cocoa also contains flavonoids, a group of antioxidant compounds that studies have shown can help with hypertension, insulin sensitivity, platelet function, and immune response, Griel says.
Carob trees (Ceratonia siliqua) have been farmed in the Middle East for at least 4,000 years. Their edible pods are traditionally eaten on Tu B’shevat, a Jewish holiday celebrating trees. The seeds inside the pods were also traditionally used to weigh diamonds, which is where we get the word carat from.