As people worldwide become increasingly conscious about what they’re eating and where it has been sourced, the demand for healthy natural foods has rocketed. From gluten-free bread to sugar-free baking, there is a huge market for healthy alternatives driven by health-conscious consumers.

For chocolate lovers, it is hard to find a replacement that has the same flavour, texture, and melt-in-the-mouth feel as the indulgent treat.

A possible replacement is Carob. It is made from the seed pods of the Ceratonia siliqua tree, which is native to the Mediterranean region. It first rose to popularity in the 1980s as a chocolate substitute due to its natural sweetness. Back then, it was commonplace, touted as ‘healthy’, and embraced as part of the early vegetarian and good-for-you lifestyle. Now it is starting to make a comeback, with demand once again on the rise due to the chocolate substitute’s nutritional values.

The healthy alternative: tracking the carob down

Carob powder is ground from the ripe dry pods of the carob tree. It is high in fibre, calcium, and protein, and boasts a number of other health benefits and nutritional values that make the food an attractive alternative to chocolate.

Vegan, caffeine-free, gluten-free, and naturally sweet (eliminating the need to fortify it with sugar), one tablespoon of carob powder has 25 calories, no fat, no saturated fat, no cholesterol, and 6g of carbohydrate. Compare this to cocoa powder, which has more fat and contains caffeine, and it is easy to see why carob production is experiencing a resurgence in popularity.

Carob also contains three times as much calcium as cocoa powder, has a high iron content, and is claimed to reduce cholesterol.

A 2010 study published in the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition found that participants who ate carob fibre twice a day reduced their blood cholesterol after a period of just four weeks.

However, despite these abundant health benefits, carob powder is still largely confined to health food stores or the healthy foods aisles of supermarkets. A quick Google search of ‘where to buy carob’ returns a page with just more than 500,000 results, with the top hits being Holland and Barrett, Amazon, healthysupplies.co.uk, and buywholefoodsonline.co.uk.

A booming sector: Australia is leading the way

For the moment, carob is still trying to find its place in the global food industry. However, this year two Australian companies have found export success with their nutritious and delicious carob bars, powders, and syrups. Based in South Australia, Australian Carob Company and The Carob Kitchen are the two largest producers in the country, exporting their products to many countries including Singapore, Japan, the US, and the UK.

In addition, the Australian Carob Company has developed what it claims to be the world’s purest carob product, which is also free from nuts and gluten.

Company founder Michael Jolly was quoted by theleadsouthaustralia.com.au as saying the quality of Australian carob is unparalleled: “There are a lot of health benefits with carob and the benefit of using it without adding sugars.

“It is very good for your digestive system, high in fibre, it’s got vitamins, protein, calcium, and iron. It is 100% organic.

“We are totally nut free and gluten free because we are the only non-contaminated carob in the world with full traceability.”

The company’s carob products are processed without any contamination or waste, which makes them highly regarded in countries such as Spain, which is one of the traditional carob-producing nations.

Both the Australian Carob Company and The Carob Kitchen put the peak in demand for carob down to the burgeoning health food industry. A 2012 report from EuroMonitor International estimated that the global sale of healthy food products will reach $1 trillion in 2017, and it is this market that carob and carob products will tap into.

Reviving a tradition: technology and traditional farming

In an attempt to revive the traditional cultivation of carobs, the University of Cyprus has teamed up with farmers to plant and harvest thousands of trees on the island.

University rector Constantinos Christofides said: “The idea is to combine high technology and traditional farming with a view of finding new uses for carobs such as preparing baby food, as carobs are known to help in digestion and intestine problems.”

The project aims to make use of the special and nutritional characteristics of carob, such as its high-calcium and phosphorous content, as well as its possible uses as an analgesic and a substitution for coffee and cocoa.

Christofides added: “It is amazing that the traditional main use for carobs was to prepare animal fodder.

“But their characteristics make them suitable for a plethora of products. Consuming them raw is very healthy.”

Until the 1960s, Cyprus was the third largest exporter of carobs after Spain and Italy, and the trade generated millions of pounds annually. But now, only small quantities are harvested, and these are mainly used by local industries to produce a carob candy, syrup dressing, and flour. The project to revive carob cultivation involves planting 40,000 new carob trees to create Cyprus’ largest carob forest on government lands on the southwest shore of the island.

While farmers have already expressed an interest in getting involved with the project, the University of Cyprus is also trying to attract overseas investment, and is reportedly in contact with pharmaceutical companies and baby food manufacturers to exploit the medicinal and nutritional properties of carobs.

Christofides says: “The idea is to attract foreign interest from food and pharmaceutical manufacturers but also provide local and foreign investment in a sector that we believe offers vast prospects.”

He added by applying science to a traditional activity, the project will: “help create jobs for farmers who otherwise would be idle, offer job opportunities in research and manufacturing, and help Cyprus consolidate and expand growth.”

All in all, this is good news for the chocolate substitute.