Dark chocolate is amazing for health – that’s no secret. It offers a range of plant-based nutrients and has been linked to benefits like reduced inflammation (1,2), improved cognition (3,4,5) and a better mood (6).
But, dark chocolate isn’t entirely natural. Even the best brands go through some processing and have extra ingredients.
This is where cacao nibs come in.
Cacao nibs nutrition shows many of the same healthy compounds that you find in dark chocolate. But, less processing results in a healthier product overall.
With the strong focus on cocoa and dark chocolate, cacao nibs are often overlooked. Let me show you why they are so very powerful.
What are Cacao Nibs?
Cocoa and chocolate are produced from the tree Theobroma cacao. Some people call this a cocoa tree, others call it a cacao tree, either is correct. The same is true for the beans.
Basically, the tree produces cocoa fruits, which contain pulp and seeds. These seeds are the cocoa beans and there are around 20 to 75 per fruit (7). These are eventually used to make chocolate and cocoa.
But, there are many steps along the way.
The fruit is first harvested, with the seeds and the pulp then being removed. There is then fermentation and drying processes, followed by roasting. After this, the beans are cracked and the shells separated out (8).
At this point, you’re left with just cocoa beans – which are also called cocoa nibs or cacao nibs.
So basically, cacao nibs are just the dried and roasted beans from the cocoa tree. There are no additives or flavors. This means you’re getting all the nutrition from the beans.
There are also raw cacao nibs. These haven’t been through the roasting stage. Theoretically, these should have a higher concentration of beneficial nutrients and be better for you overall.
However, new research has offered some insights about the roasting process and the chemical changes that occur. The study demonstrated that roasting causes some polyphenol compounds to increase while others decrease.
It appears that roasting then is beneficial to some compounds, but not to others. Therefore using both both raw and roasted nibs are healthy options.
Making chocolate requires many extra steps. One of these is conching. This alters the chemical structure of the chocolate and the particle size (9). Various ingredients are also added. These can include sugar, flavorings, milk powder and sweeteners.
The site Cocoa Runners goes into the processes in more detail.
Dark chocolate does have less milk and sugar than milk chocolate. Some high-quality brands will minimize the additives and processing as much as possible. Still, chocolate will always be more processed than cacao nibs and involves more ingredients too.
Cacao nibs are the same beans used to make chocolate but they go through much less processing
What Do They Taste Like?
The processing steps for chocolate create a smooth and silky product – one that is very easy to eat. The sugar and milk help to mask some of the bitterness as well, which is why dark chocolate is more intense than milk chocolate.
Cacao nibs don’t go through any of this. As a result, they are much more bitter and retain the intense flavor of chocolate. The texture is also interesting. The nibs are both crunchy and tender, much like a macadamia nut.
If you’re just familiar with chocolate itself, cacao nibs can take time to get used to. But, many people do love the taste and texture. The nibs are especially powerful for people who don’t like sweet food and anyone on a low-carb diet.
Cacao nibs can be an acquired taste – so give yourself some time. Even if you don’t like the intensity, there are many good ways to use cacao nibs. This includes recipes that mask the bitterness.
Cacao nibs retain the chocolaty flavor of cocoa beans but they tend to be bitter and can be intense
Cacao Nibs Nutrition
Cacao nibs are simply seeds from the cocoa plant. So, they have all the plant-based nutrients that you find in dark chocolate.
Indeed, cocoa is a particularly complex food, with a wide range of antioxidants and compounds (10). While researchers don’t know the individual functions and impacts of each one of these compounds, it is clear that some classes (including the flavanols) have considerable health potential.
Cacao nibs are also a natural source of vitamins and minerals, including (11):
As with dark chocolate, there is also some caffeine in cacao nibs, roughly 22 mg per ounce (12). This is a relatively low amount. Even so, it may be significant if you’re sensitive to caffeine.
If you’re curious, you can use the site Caffeine Informer to compare caffeine levels and work out how much caffeine you’re getting from your food.
The macronutrient breakdown looks like this (13).
Nutrition Facts: Cacao Nibs (2 tbsp/14 grams)
The information above is a good guideline for what you can expect from cacao nibs. But, there will still be variation. Key factors include the location that the plant is grown in, the specific cultivar, weather conditions and the specific processing steps.
One important pattern is the carbohydrate content. For a 2-tablespoon serving, there is only 1 gram of net carbs. You’re also getting significant fiber, which is always desirable.
The nutrient balance also makes cacao nibs a great snack. They’re fairly low in calories per serving, without any added sugar. The fiber and protein would also help you to feel full, which is perfect between meals.
Cacao is a low-carb ingredient, while also providing many important nutrients
Health Benefits of Cacao Nibs
There aren’t many studies that specifically look at cacao nibs and their health implications. But, this doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits.
Instead, the evidence comes from research into dark chocolate, cocoa and cocoa extract. Research has focused on proving that the compounds in cocoa beans are important for health. This has often involved the use of high-flavanol cocoa or even cocoa extract supplements.
The outcomes of such studies are directly relevant to cacao nibs. After all, the nibs contain all the compounds that cocoa beans offer.
They also have fewer additives and have gone through less processing. This may make them a better source of the compounds. So then, what are the health benefits?
Improved Heart Health
The compounds in cocoa beans can decrease heart disease risk (14,15,16,17), through many mechanisms.
These include lowering blood pressure (18,19), improving cholesterol profiles (20) and reducing inflammation (21,22). The compound epicatechin is especially relevant and may protect against blocked arteries and blood clots (23).
Stabilized Blood Sugar
The sugar in chocolate (even in dark chocolate) can make it a poor choice for diabetics. Yet, cacao nibs don’t contain any added ingredients. For this reason alone, they’re a perfect way to get the chocolate flavor, without spiking blood sugar levels.
The compounds in dark chocolate may also improve insulin response and help promote good blood sugar control (24).
Multiple authors suggest that cocoa may increase brain function. For example, one study showed that high cocoa chocolate could help to improve attention levels (25). MRIs also show that flavanol-rich cocoa can increase blood flow in the brain (26).
Cocoa flavanols have also been linked to higher mental function scores (27). Another study found that flavanol-rich dark cocoa improved cognition in children (28).
Beyond this, cacao nibs are a powerful source of antioxidants (29). This aspect alone is associated with significant cognitive benefits (30).
As always, more evidence is needed. But, it’s clear that there is some relationship between chocolate and cognition. Cacao nibs are perhaps the most powerful way to access this.
Plus, cacao nibs are a perfect snack if you’re trying to concentrate – as don’t tend to increase blood sugar levels.
Chocolate is a feel-good food for many people. In part, this is due to the combination of sugar and fat. But, the compounds in cocoa beans play a role too. This includes the compound serotonin, along with tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin) (31).
As a result, dark chocolate and cacao nibs can boost mood as well (32). This improvement may be more sustainable than with milk chocolate, simply because there is no associated sugar crash.
The caffeine that’s present can also help with mood.
Reduced Disease Risk
Flavanols have also been linked to lower disease risk overall.
This includes a lower risk of death from heart disease, stroke and cancer (33), partly due to decreasing blood pressure (34).
Research has found many benefits from dark chocolate and these apply to cacao nibs as well
How to Use Cacao Nibs
Many people simply use cacao nibs as-is. As with pomegranate seeds, you can sprinkle cacao nibs on countless dishes, including sweet and savory options. You can also just use them as an alternative to chocolate chips. This might include adding them into cookies, muffins or homemade granola.
Some people grind them up and use them like cocoa powder. For example, you can brew ground up cacao nibs with coffee or you can add the nibs to smoothies.
Using cacao nibs as recipe additions is a great way to get a feel for the flavor and texture that they offer. Over time, you may find that you get more creative and work out new ways to use them.
Aside from just adding cacao nibs in, there are many recipes that use cacao nibs as a key flavor component. For example, David Lebovitz offers a Cocoa Nib and Spiced Lamb Sausage Pizza recipe, while Earthy Delights has a Smoky Butternut Squash and Cacao Soup recipe.
On the sweet side of things, there are recipes like Cashew Chia Cacao Nib Pudding (from A Calculated Whisk), Peanut Butter Cacao Nib Oat Bites (from Heart of a Baker), Candied Cacao Nibs (from The Spruce) and Cacao Nib and Mint Chocolate Ice Cream (from Primal Palate).
Just be aware – cacao nibs won’t melt. They’re simply cocoa beans after all.
Cacao nibs can be simply added to recipes – while others use the nibs as a flavor-rich ingredient
Where to Buy Cacao Nibs
At one point, cacao nibs were fairly obscure and were difficult to find. That’s not the case now. Instead, cacao nibs are sold at many supermarkets, along with specialty and health food stores.
You can also find them online. Looking online is often better, as you have access to a wider range of products and brands. Plus, you can look at reviews to get an idea of what to expect.
This is especially important for chocolate, cocoa and cacao nibs, as there is a risk of contamination. Some brands contain surprisingly high levels of the toxic metal cadmium, while others may contain some lead. This pattern can even happen with brands that seem trustworthy.
One especially powerful choice is the cacao nibs from Navitas Organics.
This product has many appealing aspects, such as being organic, non-GMO and passing both lead and cadmium standards set by Prop 65 in California.
Testing also shows that it contains higher levels of flavanols than most other brands. This makes it especially relevant for anyone wanting health benefits from cacao nibs.
The brands below are alternatives that you can consider. They all have good reputations and tend to be popular.
Whichever product you choose, cacao nibs are a powerful way to get the nutrients from dark chocolate and improve your health overall. They also taste great and work well in many different recipes.
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