Cacao nibs, a precursor in making processed chocolate, offer more brain-boosting benefits than chocolate. Get ideas for adding cacao nibs to your diet.
You’ll find dark chocolate at the top of any superfood or brain food list.
There’s loads of evidence that eating chocolate can make you healthier, smarter and happier.
But dark chocolate is hardly as natural as it’s made out to be.
After all, chocolate bars don’t grow on trees!
From “bean to bar,” the making of chocolate involves a surprising number of processing steps, including the addition of sugar.
But what if I told you there was a more natural way to get all the benefits of dark chocolate that was much closer to the bean itself?
If your chocolate habit has you feeling slightly guilty, worry no more.
Cacao nibs provide a tasty and even healthier way to get your chocolate fix — minus the sugar and the guilt.
If you haven’t tried cacao nibs, you (and your brain) are in for a tasty treat.
What Are Cacao Nibs?
Chocolate, no matter what form it’s in, starts with a tropical evergreen tree Theobroma cacao.
Sometimes it’s called the cocoa tree, sometimes the cacao tree.
Its genus name Theobroma literally means “the fruit of the gods.”
I’m sure most chocolate lovers would agree.
Its seeds, cocoa beans, are the basis of all chocolate and cocoa products, including cacao nibs.
In this picture, you see cocoa fruit, also called cocoa pods, growing on a cocoa tree.
Within these pods lies cocoa pulp and beans.
It’s the beans we’re after for making chocolate.
But the creation of chocolate from “beans to bar” requires a lot of steps.
Ripe cocoa pods are harvested and cut open, and the pods, pulp, and beans are allowed to ferment for five to seven days. (1)
After fermentation is done, the beans are sorted from the pulp, then are spread out and allowed to dry in the sun.
They are then shipped around the world to chocolate makers who roast the beans.
Every chocolate maker has a secret roasting formula of time and temperature to bring out a unique set of flavors from the beans.
Lastly, the beans are cracked open and the papery husk is removed.
Ta-da! You now have cacao nibs.
While this may seem like a lot of steps, cacao nibs are the least processed way to eat chocolate.
Here’s a look at the general chocolate manufacturing process.
You can see that chocolate bars and chips are a long way from occurring naturally and a long way from relatively unprocessed cacao nibs.
Even the highest quality chocolate you can buy goes through many steps before becoming a chocolate bar — almost always including the health baggage of added sugar.
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How Cocoa Powder Compares to Cacao Nibs
Cocoa powder is basically finely ground cacao nibs, making them another minimally processed alternative to dark chocolate bars.
You can sprinkle cocoa powder on foods, add it to smoothies, or use it to make hot chocolate or brain-healthy dark chocolate snacks and desserts.
Avoid cocoa powder that is labeled “Dutch” chocolate or lists alkali in its ingredients.
The alkalization process destroys cocoa’s flavonoids — antioxidant, anti-inflammatory compounds that provide many of cocoa’s health benefits. (2)
The terms cacao and cocoa are often used interchangeably. Cacao nibs are sometimes called cocoa nibs. But, in general, cacao is the name of the bean from which chocolate is derived while cocoa refers to the processed final product.
What Do Cacao Nibs Taste Like?
People eat chocolate mainly because they love the way it tastes and feels in the mouth.
The fact that it happens to be on most superfood lists is a nice side benefit.
But let’s face it, the world was in love with chocolate long before it was considered a health food!
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So before you trade in your favorite dark chocolate bar, you’ll want to know what cacao nibs taste like.
Cacao nibs have a pleasant, slightly sweet nutty taste.
They are crunchy but not rock hard.
Their texture can be compared to soft nuts like cashews or macadamia nuts.
They aren’t as bitter as you might expect.
In fact, good ones are a lot less bitter than good quality dark chocolate.
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Roasted vs Raw
Cacao nibs are sold both roasted and raw.
Which you choose is a matter of personal preference.
Keep in mind that not all cacao nibs are of equal quality.
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Just as the taste and quality of that other wildly popular tropical bean, coffee, varies wildly, so does the taste and quality of cacao nibs.
Raw nibs are popular among raw food enthusiasts, but unfortunately a lot of companies that sell raw nibs make some rather wild, unsubstantiated health claims about the benefits of cacao nibs.
Chocolate connoisseurs point out that roasting brings out the nuttiness and removes certain astringent compounds that can give raw cacao nibs a sour taste.
If you plan to enjoy your nibs as you would a fine dark chocolate, I recommend getting roasted nibs from a company known for making excellent chocolate like Scharffen Berger.
Health Benefits of Cacao Nibs
Cacao nibs are still a novelty food item so there isn’t a lot of good scientific information available on their nutritional content or health benefits.
Virtually no studies have been done on cacao nibs but there is plenty of data on chocolate and cocoa powder which is one step removed from cacao nibs.
But since cacao nibs are the raw material used to create chocolate, it’s an even more concentrated source of all the good stuff found in chocolate — like the “bliss molecule” anandamide and the “love compound” phenylethylamine. (3, 4, 5)
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Cocoa powder is loaded with antioxidants having more than other “superfoods” such as acai, blueberry, and pomegranate powders. (8)
When tested against other brain-boosting beverages, cocoa powder drink came out ahead of the antioxidant powerhouse green tea. (9)
Chocolate contains a little caffeine, the most popular mood-altering substance on the planet. (10)
Chocolate is packed with minerals including copper, iron, manganese, potassium, phosphorous, selenium, and zinc. (11)
It’s one of the best food sources of magnesium, a mineral needed for over 300 metabolic functions, including the formation of the mood-elevating brain chemical serotonin. (12)
Magnesium deficiency is common and it’s believed that chocolate cravings are a sign you need more of it.
Magnesium has profound effects on your brain and mental health.
Low magnesium is linked to anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, and schizophrenia. (13)
These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ways chocolate can boost your brain health and function.
And chocolate isn’t good just for your brain, it’s equally good for your heart. (14)
It improves blood flow, decreases blood pressure, and reduces risk of heart attack. (15)
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How to Use Cacao Nibs
Cacao nibs are nature’s chocolate chips.
You can eat them as is for a handy, brain-healthy snack or add them to other foods.
Use them in sweet treats wherever you use chocolate chips or nuts.
Add to your favorite trail mix or nut mix — an additional benefit is that they don’t melt like chocolate chips.
Other healthy uses include adding them to healthy desserts or nut butters, sprinkling them on a salad, or tossing into smoothies.
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You can grind them up and brew them along with coffee grounds for added nutrition and flavor.
(But don’t make the common mistake of adding them to hot drinks expecting them to melt. They won’t!)
Unfortunately, most recipes for cacao nibs found online are not all that healthy and mainly focus on adding them to sugar-laden treats.
But tossing a few nibs into pancake batter or sprinkling them on ice cream does not magically turn these foods into health foods!
You may think they are for serious health food nuts only, but they are being incorporated into gourmet dishes too.
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Serious Eats has recipes for exotic dishes that contain cacao nibs like “shallot and beer marmalade” and “cocoa nib and spiced lamb sausage pizza.”
Here’s a delicious savory recipe for a cacao nib encrusted pork tenderloin.
One of my favorite ways to eat cacao nibs is covered in dark chocolate — it’s the best of both worlds!
Keep in mind that cacao nibs are not caffeine-free.
The Benefits of Cacao Nibs: The Bottom Line
Cacao nibs are a little-known precursor to the chocolate most of us know.
They are significantly less processed, contain no sugar, and have retained all of their nutrients, making them superior to chocolate candy bars in almost every way.
They are quite tasty — nutty and slightly sweet and surprisingly less bitter than very dark chocolate.
They can be eaten as is and are are an extremely versatile cooking ingredient.
If you love the taste and health benefits of chocolate, but don’t want all the unhealthy sugar that comes along for the ride, give cacao nibs a try.