The seeds from the pod of the carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua L.) are used to make locust bean gum, a clean label hydrocolloid that is prized by food manufacturers for its functional benefits, such as desirable mouth feel, melting resistance and its capability to stabilize proteins, especially plant proteins.
The locust bean gum market is highly unstable, however, with prices fluctuating wildly. Demand for locust bean gum has risen in recent years due to its suitability for many plant-based food and drink applications, putting further pressure on supplies.
This summer, industry expert and founder of hydrocolloid consulting firm IMR International, Denis Seisun, reported that prices were over $60 per kilo, a record-high.
Israeli start-up CarobWay, founded in 2020, hopes to alleviate this market instability. Udi Alroy, the start-up’s CEO and co-founder, said CarobWay’s vertically integrated operations would serve primarily the locust bean gum industry with “long-term supply solutions,” as well as seeking to develop a line of other ingredients based on carob pods.
“The current supply chain is not stable since most of the trees grow in the forest and are cultivated manually. CarobWay is bringing innovation to this traditional market with advanced agriculture methods,” said Alroy.
However, relief will not be immediate. It is currently investing heavily in R&D and plans to launch its first product line by 2023.
Ancient crop, new tech
The start-up recently established its first 70-hectare (173 acre) carob grove in the Upper Galilee region in conjunction with two R&D farms, Hulata and Galilee Agricultural Co., and five other collective farms.
The Hulata model grove is fully automated and computerized, gathering all crop and climate data, and equipped to test various cultivation methods such as irrigation and pollination techniques on local carob varieties, it said.
CarobWay also recently partnered with the Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL), Israel’s oldest environmental arm, in a 10-year joint research project that will study intensive cultivation of high-yield carob trees.
In conjunction with the JNF-KKL, CarobWay will take part in a national carob tree survey and has developed an agri-app to this end.
CarobWay’s app allows for instant data gathering from the field. It classifies the trees during harvest, collects samples, and analyses these samples on a geographic information system (GIS) platform, recording field data such as location, tree yield and seed volume per pod.
“Our process of evaluation for the best species includes searching for the best and most high-yield trees,” Alroy told FoodNavigator-USA. “Once we have harvested them, we look into the properties of both the carob seeds’ and pods’ chemical structure. We have developed a fast-track analytical methodology in which we can screen hundreds of preferred carob trees during the harvesting season.
“By the end of the season, we are receiving a clear and highly accurate map of the most efficient or ‘tastier’ trees. These trees are being further evaluated for their nutritional attributes and their industrial processing properties as well. We have five carob types in Israel, and each one is quite different from the other in its characteristics. The nutritional profile of each subtype has a different profile which, in some cases, is a derivative of the climate or the amount of rain in the specific region.”
By deepening its understanding of the functionality and characteristics of various carob species, CarobWay says it will be able to develop ingredients that are tailored to food manufacturers’ needs. Some carob species produce fruit that naturally has a higher sugar content, which could serve food and drink brands looking for sugar with a low glycemic index. Other species whose pods contain more seeds are more suited to the locust bean market.
Alroy described CarobWay’s business model as being “vertically influenced”. It works with carob producers in Israel under “a most competitive ten-year business offer” and guarantees its growers a fixed price for the duration of the cultivation period. CarobWay also commits to buying the farm’s entire crop.
A climate smart ingredient
Carob trees are extremely hardy and can tolerate harsh conditions such as drought, low soil fertility, brackish water, and high temperatures up to 50°C.
According to Sohel Zedan, chief forest officer for the JNF and expert in carob cultivation and agriculture, most of Israel’s carob trees were planted by the JNF in the 1950s as part of a major afforestation campaign. However, some trees have been growing wild in forests for thousands of years, becoming resistant to climate shocks and environmental changes.
“Many of these deep-rooted perennial trees have long life spans, with the potential to live decades or even centuries. This makes them a highly sustainable, yet low-maintenance crop —traits we look for when selecting the best species to develop,” he said.
According to Alroy, the company has 10 growers supplying it with carob crop today and will count 25 growers by next year. CarobWay currently harvests carobs from forests in several parts of Israel owned by the JNF.