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More than a cocoa alternative: Carob gains attention as a functional ingredient

Article-More than a cocoa alternative: Carob gains attention as a functional ingredient

© iStock/Anna Fedorova RS carob powder, locust bean gum, Anna Fedorova, iStock-1329029844.jpg
With cocoa prices at record highs and chocolate producers turning to more affordable ingredients that aid in cocoa-free reformulation, carob is back in the spotlight.

First introduced as a – not very successful – cocoa alternative in the 1970s, in recent years the sweet legume is also increasingly emerging as an ingredient in other products. Today, carob is not just found in sweet treats and in powder form, but also as a healthy addition in functional foods. Fi Global Insights investigates the new-found appeal of this Mediterranean tree crop.

More sustainable than cocoa

Extreme weather, diseased crops, and ageing trees in West Africa have driven up cocoa prices to record highs this year. While some of these factors could diminish in the short term, the effects of climate change are likely to have an adverse effect on the long-term cocoa grower outlook. As a result, chocolate producers are increasingly turning to other ingredients as they seek to reformulate their products to reduce dependency on cocoa. This has put more attention on carob, a naturally sweet legume with a history as an ingredient in products that are positioned as chocolate alternatives.

Italian startup Foreverland, which produces several carob-based products, was one of the finalists of the ‘enhancing wellbeing via nutrition’ category of the FoodTech Challengers competition held at the FoodTech Congress 2024 in Warsaw, Poland on  30 May 2024. In its presentation, the company made the case that cocoa, having reached the highest price since 1979, is an increasingly unavailable and unsustainable ingredient. According to Foreverland co-founder and CTO Carlo Bottiroli, nearly 90% of the current land used for the crop in the main sourcing countries Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire will no longer be suitable for cocoa by the year 2050.

Bottiroli also shared that its product, Freecao drops, are produced with 90% less water than comparable cocoa-based drops, and its CO2 emissions are reduced by 80% due to the more localised production in southern Italy, the lack of pesticide use, and the absence of deforestation.

A 2022 article published in the academic journal Foods confirms the carob tree as particularly well suited to mitigating global warming. The trees are very drought-resistant and function as a significant carbon dioxide sink.

The startup’s positioning aligns with a broader trend found in market intelligence company Mintel’s new product development insights, which show that the most rapidly growing claim associated with carob products is ‘ethical’ – seeing a 900% surge in the last 12 months.

A strong nutritional profile

The carob tree yields carob pods that contain seeds (accounting for 10-20% by weight) and carob fruit. The main products produced from the fruit pulp are powder, syrup, and flour, all of which can be used in industrial food production.

The nutritional profile is interesting to health-conscious brands for several reasons. One of the most attractive properties is the high amount of insoluble fibre, accounting for as much as 68.4 g per 100 g of pulp. Researchers have found that the carob fibre is rich in condensed tannins and other polyphenols, which are linked to anti-cancer, anti-diabetic, and neuroprotective effects, according to a 2023 study published in the journal Molecules.

Besides the high-fibre, low-fat profile, carob fruit also contains a wide range of minerals – notably zinc, magnesium, iron, and calcium, and vitamins E, B6, C, and D in high amounts. At the same time, unlike cocoa, the fruit does not contain any caffeine or theobromine – making it more suitable as an ingredient in pet food and less likely to trigger certain allergic reactions. Carob bean gum – more commonly known as locust bean gum – also has many functional properties that make it an attractive and widely used ingredient applied as a thickener, stabiliser, and gelling agent in food and pharmaceutical products.

Carob innovation

Foreverland’s Freecao, which it brands as ‘100% cacao-free with Italian carob’ also includes cereals, dates, and oats – resulting in a product that is both vegan and free from the most common allergens. Foreverland has already released a carob spread, and is planning to include nut butters, coffee, and pet products in their future lineup.

Foreverland is not the only company capitalising on carob’s growing profile. Highlighted in Mintel’s 2024 list of innovative biscuits, cookies, and crackers, Imma Foods’ oat and carob crispy protein wafer stands out as a recently launched snack that prominently uses carob for healthy positioning. The product description includes the claim that “the carob fibre is very rich in polyphenols, which contribute to lowering blood cholesterol levels”.

Mintel also spotlighted an innovative carob beverage in its tea, malt, and hot drinks roundup for 2024. Pumpkin Spice Faux Joe is a Canadian caffeine-free hot beverage that uses carob “for a coffee-like chocolate afternote”, with the additional health claim that the ingredient is “rich in natural calcium”.