Just because one food looks like another doesn't mean it will taste the same. Take cauliflower rice, for instance. It's really popular right now. It can be used in place of rice in many dishes like fried rice or stuffed peppers. But, no matter how much it looks like rice, it has none of the same flavors or properties of rice. (There are those who will disagree with me. I say they're fooling themselves.)
The same can be said of zoodles, zucchini cut into noodle-like strips with a spiralizer. But zoodles aren't spaghetti, no matter how much pasta sauce you pile on top. I actually like spiralized zucchini, but I never try to kid myself that it's spaghetti.
The same sentiment can be applied to carob, a food that looks remarkably like cocoa and has been touted as a substitute for chocolate. But just because carob in powder form looks like cocoa powder and can be substituted one for one in a recipe for cocoa powder, it doesn't mean the end result will taste anything like cocoa.
Health food proponents and recipe developers have tried to treat the two powders as one and the same over the decades, but chocolate lovers have just never bought it.
Carob vs. cocoa
Carob powder comes from the ground pods of a carob tree. The trees are native to the Mediterranean, although they grow throughout North America because they were brought here in the late 1800s. Inside the pods are seeds that need to be removed before the powder is made.
Instructables demonstrates one method of creating carob powder by boiling the pods, cutting them in half, removing the seeds, drying the pods completely and then grinding them into a powder. Other methods roast the pods before grinding to make their color darker — and therefore more resemble cocoa. Either way, the powder ends up looking almost identical to cocoa powder, especially when roasted, but does it taste like cocoa powder?
It does not. It has its own naturally sweet taste and it's a little nutty. Some people like it. Others do not. But if you taste carob powder next to cocoa powder, you'll realize the two are different foods. And although carob can be turned into carob chips that look like chocolate chips, if you put them in your cookies, everyone will know the difference.
Carob does have its benefits, though. It's considered by some to be healthier that cocoa. Healthline says it has lots of fiber, antioxidants and unlike cocoa, no caffeine.
Cocoa powder is made from the beans of a cacao pod. The beans are fermented, dried and roasted before being ground up into a bitter powder. In fact, plain carob powder may be preferred in a taste test next to unsweetened cocoa powder because the carob powder will be sweeter. But make no mistake. The difference in the taste between the two powders is great enough that substituting carob for cocoa will not result in something that tastes "just like chocolate."
Why carob as a chocolate substitute failed
It may already be obvious why carob as a chocolate substitute failed.
It doesn't taste like chocolate and no one wants to bite into a chocolate brownie and get something completely different. A recent New Yorker piece explains the evolution of carob in the United States, saying it failed to become a popular food because it "traumatized a generation." In the 1970s, children whose parents were members of the natural-food movement felt betrayed when they were presented with carob filled "chocolate" confections only to realize they tasted nothing like chocolate. Their rejection was simply a reaction to that betrayal.
Maybe if carob wasn't passed off as tasting "just like chocolate," carob might have had a brighter future.
"No matter how much time passes," writes Jonathan Kauffman in the New Yorker, "those objects of childhood dread are difficult to see anew. Poor carob. I may never know how good you taste."
But if we can't give carob a bright future, maybe we can learn a lesson from its past. Don't betray the people you feed by lying to them about what they're eating in the name of healthy food. The first time I made fried rice with cauliflower rice, I didn't tell my son. To be fair, it was the first time I had used cauliflower rice in anything, and I had heard it tasted "just like rice." I wasn't trying to fool him, but I was curious if he would notice the difference. I was curious if I would know the difference, too.
We both noticed the difference the moment the food went in our mouths. I was expecting there might be a difference, but my son was not. In fact, he spit it out in surprise, thinking something was wrong with it. I should have been honest, but there's no going back now. To him, cauliflower rice will always taste like betrayal, and I doubt he will ever try it again. I can't say that I blame him.