Carob versus Chocolate in History
December 21, 2011 5:11 AM   Subscribe

Carob versus Chocolate: Carob is widely held up by the Vegan/HealthFoods crowd as the 'healthier' and just as tasty rival to chocolate. However if Carob is really just as great as Cacao/Chocolate then how did Cacao/Chocolate come to surpass Carob and so dominate the European Market?

Carob is produced from the Ceratonia siliqua (Carob Tree) which is native to the Mediterranean and was widely eaten in the area, in Ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, France, Turkey, the Middle East etc.. i.e. it must have been widely known across Europe throughout the ages.

Chocolate / Cacao on the other hand was not imported to Europe until the 16th Century ( Sevilla in 1585) and was primarily taken as a beverage with sugar added.

It seems that it was not until the 19th century that Cadbury in England developed this emulsion technique that produces what we currently think of as chocolate.

So if Carob was already known and consumed, why was it so effectively displaced as a sweet / treat by Chocolate?

A) Is it just not as tasty?
B) Is the caffeine in chocolate the 'clincher' that helped it rise above the competition?
C) Is it more difficult to make a smooth velvety emulsion with Carob?
posted by mary8nne to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
posted by thinkpiece at 5:12 AM on December 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Carob isn't necessarily healthier than chocolate. The main benefit of carob is just that, since it's naturally sweet, you don't need to add extra, presumably refined sugar to it. And while I like the taste of carob myself, people are already used to the taste and concept of chocolate. Besides, there isn't really a significant reason to switch over, unless you're allergic to chocolate itself, or unless for religious or health reasons you must avoid all caffeine whatsoever.

Either way, carob as the "healthier" chocolate has been a befuddling marketing move, because chocolate is a treat, not a staple, and almost no one springs for the "healthier" version of a treat. People buy chocolates knowing that it's candy and not a meal unto itself - they don't want to chip away at their enjoyment of their own treats.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:22 AM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

...that said, the carob industry depends less on slavery than the chocolate industry, so in that sense it's healthier, just not for the person eating the food.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:25 AM on December 21, 2011

Carob is gross. If you grew up only on Hershey's I can see how you bridge that to Carob - but real dark chocolate? No way.

My wife didn't even know what carob was until a few months ago when I made a joke about carob in trail mix. I was happy for her.
posted by JPD at 5:28 AM on December 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

It seems that it was not until the 19th century that Cadbury in England developed this emulsion technique that produces what we currently think of as chocolate.

Not Cadbury - Lindt in Switzerland
posted by JPD at 5:31 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you grew up only on Hershey's I can see how you bridge that to Carob

Especially since both Hershey's and carob have a sort of chalky, grainy taste and consistency. And you're right, there isn't really a carob version of dark chocolate, which is the Mighty God King of all Chocolatekind.

I wonder, is there even a carob version of semisweet chocolate? Because if there isn't, that would be a huge problem for baking.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:37 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not concerned with whether it is actually healthier.

Chocolate is quite new. Carob has been known and consumed for so much longer in Europe but never attained the popularity of Chocolate/Cacao. Cacao just pops in from the Americas and bam before you know it bam - its the hot new thing achieving a popularity never before heard of by its old rival.
posted by mary8nne at 5:47 AM on December 21, 2011

Is it even possible to make Carob that is as smooth and silky / luscious as fine quality chocolate? (quality European chocolate - not what they sell as chocolate in the USA).
posted by mary8nne at 5:50 AM on December 21, 2011

I am a vegan and spend a lot of time with Really Hard Core Vegans (as opposed to the feeble kind who fall off the wagon occasionally and aren't all that fussy about honey, like me) and I have never heard of carob as a "healthier alternative" to chocolate, or indeed heard it recommended at all. It's a staple in jokes by vegans about vegan food, though, along the lines of "and I brought my delicious carob tofu cake with beet frosting".

In general, my vegan buddies are pretty big on chocolate, because it's rich and easy to get in vegan form and thus great for cakes or cookies or puddings, etc. In general, I'd say we eat pretty healthily and so we don't worry much about bringing a chocolate cake for a potluck or something.

Perhaps this is regional, or something left over from the seventies that's stayed in the culture as a "lol vegetarians" joke?
posted by Frowner at 5:52 AM on December 21, 2011 [8 favorites]

Easy: carob tastes like [expletive removed], chocolate tastes nice.
posted by devnull at 6:01 AM on December 21, 2011

But to speculate on your original question (the "Health Food Crowd" thing is a bit of a canard, seems like it's mostly a slam on vegans....seriously, we don't want to hurt you. Most of us don't even know you):

What about the very fact that chocolate was a new world food, a new import, etc? I'm reminded of the vogue for turkeys in 18th century France - the turkey was a status symbol precisely because it was a new thing even though France had perfectly good (or probably much tastier, if childhood meat-eating memory serves) ducks and geese.

IIRC, chocolate in actual bars wasn't a thing until the early 20th century and candy bars didn't really take off until the 20s, so it wasn't that.
posted by Frowner at 6:04 AM on December 21, 2011

Well think of it this way - Carob was around for centuries before people figured out conching, and yet it seems even then people preferred chocolate. It is totally a taste thing. It just isn't as intrinsically appealing to most people the way chocolate is.

I don't think you can get that crisp break in carob the way you can chocolate, so it is not possible to make fine candies with it.

something left over from the seventies that's stayed in the culture as a "lol vegetarians" joke? Totally, or even more broadly "lol hippies"
posted by JPD at 6:04 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a child raised by hippies in the late 70s/early 80s who favored carob, I can attest that carob is gross. Even as a child deprived of sweets, I was never under any illusions that carob tasted as good as chocolate.
posted by n'muakolo at 6:04 AM on December 21, 2011 [7 favorites]

Chocolate was a new thing, a novelty. Scarcity (i.e. it was new and had to be imported, and presumably there was rarity to it at first) creates a certain "ohh la la" to things. So naturally chocolate would become all the fashion simply because of the reasons you listed.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:07 AM on December 21, 2011

The smell of carob instantly transports me back to the food coops my hippie parents shopped at when I was a kid. At least back then and in those circles, carob was held up as the "healthy" alternative to supposedly "unhealthy" chocolate.

I wouldn't say that it tastes bad, but it definitely isn't as even a fraction as nice as good chocolate, and I don't think you get all the theobromine chemical goodness with carob, either.
posted by Forktine at 6:08 AM on December 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have definitely heard of carob as a "healthier" alternative to chocolate, and never in a joking way. I've divided my time in life between Upstate New York and New York City.

Either way, getting back to your question, for one thing, carob is grainier and lacks the natural fats of chocolate; also, since it's naturally sweet and lacks flavonoids, you can't make "dark" carob. While carob can be an acceptable substitute for chocolate in things like carob chip cookies, you cannot make a carob version of, say, traditional, dark hot chocolate with chili peppers in it, or mole sauce, which is how Europeans would have probably first experienced chocolate.

I don't know if carob could be kludged into being as silky as real chocolate, but that would require quite a bit of extra fat. Seems expensive and wasteful, and I don't know if it would even work.

Perhaps most importantly, Europeans never knew what chocolate tasted like until they actually had chocolate. Carob had previously just been a sweetener and as a component in sweet syrups and such. What's more, even before Europeans had tottered off to the Americas, carob itself had been largely replaced by sweeter, more efficient sugar sources, viz. sugar cane.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:09 AM on December 21, 2011

I wonder whether carob might be more "intrinsically appealing" as part of a braise or cooked with a dish that could otherwise contain dates - some kind of sweet rice thing, or a honey-ginger cake? Sweets before cane sugar weren't that sweet, and the split between sweets-are-dessert and sweetened main dishes wasn't as deep (like all those weird sweet/meat medieval things)

That is, maybe the problem with carob is simply that it doesn't work very well in the new/hippies applications rather than a flaw in carob itself?

I also wonder if the rise of chocolate has to do with the rise of sugar? Carob is naturally sweet, yes; chocolate is not, but chocolate tastes richer and more complex when sugar is added than carob does. The Maya drank bitter chocolate with pepper, right?

But once you have new world slave plantations and the triangle trade and a bunch of really horrible stuff, you have a whole new kind of chocolate which is rich and bitter and sweet at the same time.
posted by Frowner at 6:10 AM on December 21, 2011

To me, chocolate and carob don't taste much alike, beyond both being brown and sweet/sweetened, so this question is almost like saying, "Why haven't raisins replaced chocolate, if they're so much healthier?"

I agree with Stitcherbeast that the fact that chocolate initially came on the European scene as a beverage probably also has something to do with it. Chocolate was initially more in the same category as coffee than with fruits or sweets.
posted by mskyle at 6:23 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you should go back and look at the caffeine component. The 'discovery' of caffeinated products by the empires of the West literally transformed the world. Chocolate wasn't alone in sweeping across these cultures and supplanting existing products - tea and coffee did the same things. This intoxicant and its beverage delivery systems was a novelty in these cultures and sparked off a revolution in food habits and, arguably, a social and economic revolution as well, as all of these beverages totally reorganized social life around new places of business, new daily habits, and new market priorities while getting people hopped up on a stimulant. I don't think it's the rich dark flavor alone that helped chocolate take off as a beverage. I think it was the caffeine, and that goes along much better with these other historical trends.

the "Health Food Crowd" thing is a bit of a canard, seems like it's mostly a slam on vegans

It's not a canard at all. That's how carob got a foothold in the US. I was raised by earthy-crunchy parents in the 1970s at was diagnosed with ADHD at an early age. Not wanting to medicate me, my mom read up on special diets, and put me on some regimen which proscribed chocolate and most other caffeinated and sugary things. We went to the health food store to get it, and there was, like, only one health food store in the entire county. Carob was extremely exotic and particular to hippie health nuts, and I can well attest that I was made fun of for it as an eight-year-old.

Also, it tasted crap.
posted by Miko at 6:33 AM on December 21, 2011 [13 favorites]

Some more, not insignificant for the time:
Chocolate was widely used in Catholic countries after 1569 when Pope Pius V declared that Chocolate (the drink) did not break the fast -- despite the hearty nutritional aspects of Chocolate. Every Pope for 190 years after him, from Gregory XIII to Benedict XIV affirmed this decision -- the popes loved Chocolate. It became a popular way to nourish oneself on the many religious fast days. This may have reached it's climax when Pope Clement XIV was killed with a cup of poisoned Chocolate in 1774!

By the middle of the 1600s, Chocolate houses had opened in Europe; this is before coffee houses started up. Chocolate Houses became social clubs, meeting places for the elite, places to visit and to talk politics. It was trendy and extremely expensive. Coffee was much cheaper and therefore not for the elite, but for the masses. Coffee houses inherited the popularity, the community and the political atmosphere from Chocolate houses when the invention of the Dutch press removed the narcotic effect. The coffee house culture went on to incubate the democratic political movements of the 18th & 19th centuries.
There's also the real cachet of an expensive, imported novelty item to which at first only the wealthy had access.
posted by Miko at 6:39 AM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Let's not forget though that by the 1890s when Chocolate started to appear as something that could be substituted for with Carob the craze for drinking chocolate had subsided, the Cacao growing areas had expanded beyond the Americas, the price of sugar had fallen precipitously, and generally cocoa was not an incredibly rare commodity.
posted by JPD at 6:42 AM on December 21, 2011

No, of course not, but something that enters a culture as a luxury good is perceived by everyone as a luxury, retaining the general aura of 'good' even when it becomes a mass market item. Cf cars, silk, champagne, etc. It has to have qualities that are palatable to the masses, and fortunately chocolate does.

However, I do think the love for chocolate is at least as much due to cultural factors as it is due to any qualities intrinsic to chocolate other, because it isn't the go-to sweet in every culture even though every culture can have access to it these days as easily as any other, and because caffeine existed in other cultures but it was managed in different ways that prevented the kind of obsession that developed in Europe and North America.
posted by Miko at 6:50 AM on December 21, 2011

yeah but 300 years is a long time for food trends. 150 years ago Lobster was trash food, Oysters were given away free in bars in NYC. Once availability changes perceived prestige can change very quickly.
posted by JPD at 6:54 AM on December 21, 2011

(the "Health Food Crowd" thing is a bit of a canard, seems like it's mostly a slam on vegans

I wasn't very clear - I meant that it was not very relevant to the rest of the question, which seemed to be about the early rise of chocolate, not the 1970s - and the brief popularity of carob as a chocolate substitute among one faction of hippies really doesn't have much to do with carob vs. chocolate - carob was a minority taste among an already-existing minority at the time. I mean, I know plenty of seventies hippies who never liked carob, so it's not even as though it was a universal among hippies. This whole "look at the hippies trying to make us give up our delicious chocolate against the Inexorable Historical Trend, how ridiculous" thing frustrates me....first, hippies just aren't that powerful; second, why is it so terrible to try new things and then stop when they don't work? Today's hippies don't generally eat a lot of carob, and I would know; and third, why is it that something that was popular in hippie culture thirty years ago is emblematic of hippies for all time and beyond, as though hippies alone represent a subculture that doesn't change? It didn't seem important to the question at all except as a sideswipe/bad joke.)
posted by Frowner at 6:55 AM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Frowner, I think it is relevant to the question in that almost none of us would have the slightest clue what carob was if it weren't for its popularity in the 1970s in the US. If the trends then hadn't reintroduced it to American culture (and my parents were more crunchy than hippy, I don't think it was meant as a sideswipe at hippies so much as that 70s trend), the argument would sound more like, "what is carob?"

Also, I have no idea how many people thought of it as a substitute for chocolate before then. But that was how we were introduced to it in the 70s; as a healthier substitute for chocolate. They were Wrong. Because, yeah, A+B+C. Carob doesn't taste anywhere near as good as chocolate, doesn't perk you up like chocolate, and can't be made into the delicious textures of chocolate.
posted by ldthomps at 7:04 AM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

The question is "Carob vs. Chocolate" not "Why does Carob suck". Carob is a shitty substitute for Chocolate. Full Stop. Now is the Carob/Date combination delicious? yes. Does Carob have uses where it is quite tasty? Yes. Did I want carob chips instead of semi-sweet choc chips in the trail mix I used to get at Unitarian summer camp? Fuck no.

Now who started the argument that carob was a healthier substitute for chocolate - well maybe I'm wrong but my personal experience is that a lot of it came out of the health food/nutrition movement that sort of went arm in arm with the hippie-ish counter culture of the late 60's and 70's. There is nothing pejorative about that statement. I mean I love my parents, I think their generation made many many positive contributions to the world. Carob chips in Gorp? not one of them.
posted by JPD at 7:04 AM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

I can't speak about carob usage/refining but The Story of Chocolate which goes into a lot of chocolate history and refining/sourcing information. (disclosure: my darling wife commissioned and my friend Donna created that)

I suspect the ascendancy of chocolate over carob is pretty much about the fat (cocoa butter) contained in cocoa beans and what that imparts to viscosity as well as how our bodies react to fats.
posted by phearlez at 7:36 AM on December 21, 2011

My mom and her peers, who grew up poor in Italy in the 1940s, used to get carob as a treat. Guess who never had another carob once she could afford chocolate?

Carob may be the poor man's chocolate, but it's a shitty, shitty substitute. If nothing else is around, like in pre-chocolate Europe, then sure, carob is... okay. Once you have access to cacao, though, carob reveals itself to be inferior in taste and texture and versatility. Asking why Europeans started using cacao is like asking why Europeans started using maize. Or tomatoes. Or potatoes.

It's because we didn't have an indigenous equivalent that could compare.
posted by lydhre at 7:40 AM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Chocolate's ascendancy is due to multiple factors:

* considered an expensive, exotic spice whose entry into the Spanish court was noted in 1577
* introduction to the rest of Europe as a medicinal drink that has various health properties including as an aphrodisiac -- heck the Aztecs considered it a warrior's drink and with those dynamic qualities
* Drink of the wealthy and privileged, including members of the Spanish, French and Italian courts in addition to religious orders like the Jesuits
* chocolate distribution from the 15th century on wards was widespread and the supply more plentiful than carob including both Spanish and English colonial plantations
* It became available to the intelligentsia and the middle classes by the mid-17th century; it was not just coffee houses that helped fuel the enlightenment
* use of chocolate in cookery is noted in Italy in 1736 for both savory and sweet
* Chocolate development and production including making an eating variety, powder and related products continued for centuries to the present day (phenol development by the MARS corp.)

Carob, on the other hand, though used through ancient times has not been listed as a luxury item that has "invigorating" properties but as a regular food stuff in the certain areas of the globe including the Levant and Mediterranean. Its ascendancy and wide distribution has only come about since the 1970's as a health food or alternative to chocolate so it is, from a marketing sense, less mature than chocolate.

This is from the top of my head. I am sure others will chime in with better.
posted by jadepearl at 8:14 AM on December 21, 2011

[Health food] stores are excellent for bringing children, as there is nothing that they actually want.

“Oh, mommy, look chocolate!”

“No Joshua, that’s carob.”

“I want it.”


The child will then take a bite and realize that nothing in the store can be trusted.
More seriously, one might just as easily ask why we don't really use all that much amaranth anymore, or why millet is used as birdseed rather than as food. Like carob, amaranth and millet were both significant agricultural products in the ancient world. But modern strains of wheat and other cereals replaced them, because other crops produced more, tastier food out of the same field. Likewise sugar cane/beets replaced carob as a sweetener and cocoa replaced it flavor-wise. Why? Because the modern crops are superior to the older ones in significant ways. Carob used to be an important source of sugar, but on a product-per-acre analysis, it's way less effective a crop than sugar cane or sugar beets. And on a straight-up flavor comparison, chocolate is preferred by most people to carob, sweetness aside. Carob is now used as a feed crop for livestock in several countries.
posted by valkyryn at 8:25 AM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Here is a newspaper column from 1982 that describes exactly what many hippieish parents were thinking were the advantages of carob over chocolate. (The author claims that her kid has no clue about which he is eating, but my experience would suggest that this was optimistic on her part.)

I was really surprised, though, to find that my copy of Laurel's Kitchen had no mention of carob in the index; now I am wondering if there was a specific author who was pushing carob in the 1970s or if this was just something in the air.
posted by Forktine at 10:20 AM on December 21, 2011

[A few comments removed. This needs to not turn into a general chat session about how much carob sucks or bad 70's/80's food experiences; please stick to answering the actual question.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:15 PM on December 21, 2011

I always assumed it was a combination of a few things:
- chocolate began in Europe as a drink. I don't think anyone was using carob as a drink then. So I think they weren't competing for the same niche. Then,
- chocolate became the big amazing new thing because it was exotic and teahouses were serving it and rich people were drinking it. So,
- once people figured out how to make it in solid form, it already was widely known and had the cachet.

Also, carob is naturally very sweet. I suspect that early chocolate was not as sweet as our chocolate is now, so carob may, at least in drink form, if anyone ever tried it, have been too sweet for tastes of the time.

Plus caffeine, as people said above.

(PS: I LOVE carob. I buy the whole pods and eat them straight. Very date-like in flavour. Nothing like the processed "carob" sweets that people make by grinding them and adding things and forming them into chips or squares. I wouldn't even have seen it as a "chocolate substitute" if it hadn't been marketed that way. I really don't think the two things are very similar.)
posted by lollusc at 1:20 PM on December 21, 2011

Disclaimer: I sold candy for several years in high school.

My grandmother couldn't eat chocolate due to a medical condition, so we always gave her carob-covered peanuts for Christmas. She loved them, but told us that she only ate them a couple of times each year because to much carob causes bowel issues (diarrhea, mainly).

While working at the candy store I heard this same "fact" from several customers. Is it true? I haven't done a double-blind study or anything, but I think it might be...
posted by tacodave at 3:04 PM on December 21, 2011

If you're expecting to taste chocolate and you taste carob instead, you will be disappointed.

The reverse is not true.
posted by flabdablet at 8:18 PM on December 21, 2011

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