There’s no better time of year to cozy up to the fireplace with a nice cup of hot chocolate. And thanks largely to this wintertime favorite, we’re all familiar with cocoa and other forms of healthy chocolate. But are you familiar with cacao nibs?
Cacao, or Theobroma cacao, is the source of original, natural chocolate. It comes from the seeds of the fruit of the cacao tree, but what most of us think of as chocolate contains no cacao at all — which means it does not contain its healthful, nutrient-packed phytochemicals that our bodies need.
Organic, raw cacao is a superfood containing a variety of unique phytonutrients, including high amounts of sulfur, magnesium and phenylethylamine. These characteristics provide many benefits, such as focus and alertness, while also keeping you in a great mood. Cacao nibs have more antioxidant activity than tea, wine, blueberries and even goji berries. Ultimately, it’s the flavonoids in cacao that makes it an above-and-beyond superfood, and if you still need more reasons to add cacao nibs to your routine, keep reading. (1)
Benefits of Cacao Nibs
The use of cacao for health dates back at least 3,000 years. Based on extensive research, the main health benefits of cacao stem from epicatechin, a flavanol found in cacao. The process of manufacturing dark chocolate retains epicatechin, whereas milk chocolate does not contain significant amounts of epicatechin.
Both epidemiological and clinical studies suggest a beneficial effect of dark chocolate on blood pressure, lipids and inflammation. Proposed mechanisms underlying these benefits include enhanced nitric oxide bioavailability and improved mitochondrial structure and function. (2)
To get these benefits, the cacao needs to be pure. One of the purest forms is in the beans themselves because they have the least processing, and includes cacao nibs. Cacao nibs are cacao beans that have been roasted, separated from their husks and broken into smaller pieces. Their health benefits include:
1. Maintain Muscle and Nerve Function
Cacao beans are one of the best magnesium-rich foods around. Magnesium is a mineral needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in our bodies, and cacao nibs contain 272 milligrams per 100 grams.
Magnesium is key to muscle and nerve function, keeping the heart rhythm steady. Thanks to its high magnesium content, along with the effects of epicatechin, cacao improves muscle structure and enhances nerve function. (3, 4)
2. Help You Lose Weight and Keep You Regular
Yes, you can lose weight when eating cacao! Now, it’s critical that you keep this in check, as cacao is high in fat and calories, but if you eat pure cacao or cacao nibs, you can get lots of fiber, which makes you feel fuller.
Don’t confuse this with chocolate bars found at the grocery because you don’t get any dietary fiber when you eat a chocolate bar, but one ounce of cacao nibs has nine grams! That makes cacao nibs ultimate high-fiber foods.
In addition, the fiber found in cacao may help keep your bowel movements regular. In a clinical study, subjects were given cocoa powder supplemented with high-fiber cocoa bran twice daily for two four-week periods, separated by a three-week period in which cocoa was not consumed. The frequency of bowel movements increased and feelings of constipation decreased during the periods when cocoa powder was consumed. (5) The raw cacao in these supplements was behind the constipation relief.
3. Prevent Anemia
Iron is necessary for red blood cell production so as an iron-rich food, cacao can help fight anemic symptoms. You can get 6 percent of your recommended daily iron intake per ounce from raw cacao nibs.
4. Reduce Risk of Coronary Disease and Stroke
Antioxidants from chocolate are probably the most common source of benefits that we know. Cacao beans, especially when eaten raw, are some of the most rich high-antioxidant foods around thanks to the phytonutrients available in cacao nibs, helping absorb the free radicals that cause damage in the body.
A study published in Contemporary Reviews in Cardiovascular Medicine reported that epidemiological data shows that regular dietary intake of plant-derived foods and beverages reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. In addition, the study demonstrated the beneficial effects of cacao on blood pressure, insulin resistance, and vascular and platelet function. (7)
5. Treat Diarrhea
Cocoa beans have historically been used as a treatment for diarrhea due to the polyphenols contained in cacao, which inhibit certain intestinal secretions. In a study conducted at Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the dose-dependent effects of flavonoid compounds present in cacao, or molecularly closely related compounds, were tested, resulting in the possible prevention of the buildup of fluid in the small intestine that’s associated with diarrhea. (8, 9)
6. Enhance Mood
Neurotransmitters are the little messengers in our brains that tell our bodies how to behave, ultimately affecting our mood. Cacao and cacao nibs have this amazing ability to act on those neurotransmitters.
Chocolate in the form of cacao stimulates the brain to release particular neurotransmitters, like euphoria, that can trigger emotions. There are two chemicals that cacao produces in our bodies when consumed. One is phenylethylamine (PEA) a chemical that our bodies make naturally. We produce PEA, an adrenal-related chemical, when we’re excited, which is what causes the pulse to quicken, providing us with more focus and awareness. (10, 11)
The other is anandamide, which is a lipid found in cacao known as the “the bliss molecule.” It has obtained this name due to its natural molecular shape, which represents that of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. (12)
Cacao vs. Cocoa
While you can use cocoa powder and cacao powder interchangeably in baked goods, smoothies, homemade raw foods and more, there are some notable differences. Both cacao and cocoa are highly nutritious for you, but if you want more nutrients, cacao is the way to go.
Cacao is an excellent source of monounsaturated fat, cholesterol-free saturated fat, vitamins, minerals, fiber, natural carbohydrates and protein. It’s actually thought that the spelling of cocoa originated as a mistake. Regardless, technically speaking, cacao and cocoa are essentially the same things, but cocoa typically refers to a more processed chocolate product with added sugar, versus the raw cacao, which has no sugar — one of the reasons it’s a much better choice.
Cacao, being the purest form of chocolate you can consume, ultimately means it’s raw and much less processed than cocoa powder or chocolate bars. It’s also thought to be the highest source of antioxidants and magnesium of all foods.
The cacao fruit tree produces cacao pods, which are cracked open to release cacao beans. These cacao beans can be processed in many ways. One is known as cacao butter, which again is a less processed form of cocoa butter. Cacao butter is the fattiest part of the fruit and makes up the outer lining of the inside of a single cacao bean. It’s white in color and has a rich, buttery texture that resembles white chocolate in taste and appearance.
Cacao butter is made by removing the bean during production. Then the remaining part of the fruit is used to produce raw cacao powder. Similar to chocolate chips that you’ve seen in the grocery store, cacao nibs are cacao beans that have been chopped up into edible pieces — however, they don’t have the added sugars and fats that cocoa contains. They do have all of the fiber, healthy fats and nutrients that make them a great option, though!
Have you heard of cacao paste? This comes from cacao nibs that have been slowly heated, which helps preserve the nutrients. Then the nibs are melted into a bark that’s a less-processed form of dark chocolate bars. Cacao paste, along with cacao powder, is great for raw vegan desserts and raw food diet snacks because it contains more fiber and calories than cocoa powder, since more of the nutrients from the whole bean are still intact.
Now, let’s review cocoa to better understand the differences. Cocoa is the term used to refer to the heated form of cacao that you probably grew up buying at the store in the form of cocoa powder and chocolate bars. When anything is heated beyond 104 degrees F, it begins to lose its nutritional value and can longer be categorized as a raw food. Though cocoa may seem inferior to raw cacao, you can still get some nutritional benefits if you choose a variety without added sugars and milk fats or oils. It’s also less expensive.
Cocoa powder is produced similarly to cacao except cocoa undergoes a higher temperature of heat during processing. However, it still retains a large amount of antioxidants in the process, so it still benefits your heart, skin, blood pressure and even your stress levels.
It’s important to pay careful attention to what you buy by looking closely at the ingredients. Be sure you buy plain cocoa powder rather than cocoa mixes since they likely contain sugar. Look for either regular cocoa powder or Dutch-processed or dark cocoa powder.
Dutch-processed cocoa powder (dark cocoa) is cocoa powder that has been processed with an alkalized solution, which makes it less acidic and much richer in taste. Regular cocoa powder retains a more acidic nature and bitter taste and is typically used in baking recipes with baking soda. Cocoa powder is a rich source of fiber with little fat and some protein. (13)
How to Use and Cook with Cacao
Cacao nibs have a chocolatey taste but are not quite as sweet as the chocolate you may find at your local market. Much like coffee beans, their flavor can vary depending on how much they’re roasted.
Cacao nibs are often found with hints of fruity or nutty flavors that have been added. For anyone that’s used to eating milk chocolate, cacao and cacao nibs seem very different, having a more bitter taste. However, it can be an acquired taste and incredibly delicious when added to homemade trail mixes, smoothies, sauces and in baking.
Savory dishes are definitely an easy way to incorporate cocao and cacao nibs. Here a few easy ways to make this superfood work for you.
- Add it to a salad. Try adding it to vitamin C foods such as bell peppers, broccoli and citrus fruits to help increase the absorption of the iron it contains. Including it in a salad with a citrus dressing and walnuts can add that special secret ingredient.
- Add cacao nibs to your smoothie. While you want to be conscious of how much you consume, especially if combining with other high-fat foods, it’s the perfect touch to almost any healthy smoothie recipe.
- Make a delicious quinoa breakfast bowl. It’s delicious in other phytonutrient-rich superfoods such as quinoa, chia seeds and especially delicious when combined with coconut. Check out the recipe below for your next breakfast bowl!
- Mak it a secret ingredient in your special sauce. Even though you get way more nutrition when it’s not heated beyond 104 degrees F, you still get benefits. Try adding it to your next pot of chili, mole sauce or pasta sauce. You’re sure to impress!
Cacao and Chia Breakfast Bowl with Toasted Coconut
Serves: 1 — double the recipe for 2
- 2 tablespoons chia seeds
- 1 scoop vanilla protein powder
- 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
- 1 ounce cacao nibs
- 1/2 banana
- 12 cashews
- 1 tablespoon raw coconut chips
- In a small bowl, blend the chia seeds, vanilla protein powder and almond milk.
- Once well-blended, let it sit for about 5 minutes until it thickens.
- Meanwhile, chop the banana into small pieces.
- Then, place raw coconut chips in a pan on high heat, shaking the coconut in the pan until lightly toasted brown.
- Place the banana pieces on top of the mixture, then sprinkle with the cacao nibs and cashews, and top off with the coconut.
History of Cacao Nibs
The tropical tree that produces cocoa beans is called Theobroma Cacao. Theobroma means “food of the gods.”
The indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica have enjoyed cacao since before the time of Christ. It’s been cultivated throughout Mexico, Central America and South America since the Early Formative Period and used as a food, a medicine and even currency. In fact, cacao was so highly valued that the ancient native peoples celebrated it, immortalizing its place in society through things like oral history, stonework and pottery chronicling its use in rituals and everyday life.
Archaeological sites have found ceramic vessels with cacao residues from the pre-Olmec peoples, from several sites in Mexico and throughout Central America, dating as far back as 1750–1900 B.C.
It’s believed that the first to grow the beans as a crop were the Olmec Indians, from 1500–400 B.C. By 600 A.D., Mayans had migrated to the northern regions of South America and took cacao with them, establishing plantations. In Mayan cultures, where it’s believed to be of divine origin, cacao is celebrated with an annual festival in April. The Aztecs believe their god Quetzalcoatl discovered cacao, and the consumption of cacao was restricted to the society’s elite. (14, 15)
Columbus was the first European to learn of cacao upon the capture of a canoe that was carrying it as cargo. Cacao did not become popular in Europe at this time because Columbus was only aware of the currency use of cacao, not the food or medicinal uses. But 20 years later, Cortez recorded its use in the court of Emperor Montezuma.
Cacao was given as a gift, and while Spain and Portugal did not export it to the rest of Europe for almost a century, it gained popularity as a medicine and aphrodisiac before regular shipments to Europe started. Twenty-five years before cocao was used in the preparation of food, the first shop opened in London in 1657 and served it as a beverage. However, it was so expensive that it was typically only consumed by the wealthy.
Chocolate was introduced to the U.S. by an Irish chocolate maker who imported beans from the West Indies to Dorchester, Massl, with his partner, Dr. James Baker. Soon, America’s first chocolate mill was making the famous Baker’s chocolate that you’ve likely heard of today. As demand grew, technology such as the cocoa press was invented to help keep up, slowly bringing the price down.
Today, most Americans consume refined versions that provide way fewer nutritional benefits. However, there are various forms, such as cacao powder, creme de cacao, raw cacao, cacao nibs, cacao beans and cacao butter, that, if consumed in their most raw and natural states, can give way to some amazing health benefits.
Several supposed health effects of cocoa have been considered, including improved heart function and relief of angina pectoris, stimulation of the nervous system, facilitated digestion, and improved kidney and bowel function. In addition, cocoa has been used to treat anemia, mental fatigue, tuberculosis, fever, gout, kidney stone symptoms and even a low libido.
In the 19th century, chocolate became a luxury item. Hence, its consumption was a sin rather than a remedy. Nowadays, chocolate is associated with obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes because most chocolate that’s consumed is loaded with sugars and other chemicals. Therefore, many physicians currently tend to warn patients about the potential health hazards of consuming large amounts of chocolate-based nutrients.
Fortunately, recent discoveries of phenolic compounds in cacao have changed this perception and encouraged research on its effects in aging, blood pressure regulation and atherosclerosis.
Risks and Things to Know About Cacao
Have you heard that you should not give dogs chocolate? Here’s why: Cacao beans contain theobromine, which makes up 1 percent to 2 percent of the cacao bean. It’s a nervous system stimulant that dilates the blood vessels similar to how caffeine affects the body. This is the ingredient that makes cacao and chocolate unsafe for dogs. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, causing you to have anxiety or affect your sleep, you may want to be careful about how much cacao you consume, if any.
Another important fact is that some think that cocoa provides calcium — however, oxalic acid is a compound found in cacao that inhibits the absorption of calcium. So though there is calcium in cacao, it’s not considered a good calcium source for this reason. In any case, you get more of the calcium by eating cacao than if you eat processed chocolate, because the sugar found in chocolate takes calcium reserves from the body.
Cacao also contains a high amount fat and calories. Consume in moderation, and be ultra-aware when combining with other calorie-dense foods so you don’t over do it. And if you have an allergic reaction, stop consuming it immediately and check with your doctor.
Cacao Nibs Takeaways
- Cacao is the source of original, natural chocolate that contains a variety of unique phytonutrients, including high amounts of sulfur, magnesium and phenylethylamine.
- Cacao nibs help maintain muscle and nerve function, lose weight and keep you regular, prevent anemia, reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, treat diarrhea, and enhance mood.
- Cacao and cocoa are essentially the same thing. The biggest difference is cocoa is heated at a higher temperature during process, thus loses some of the beneficial nutrition cacao contains. Cocoa also typically has more additives, while cacao is typically raw and a bit healthier.