Cacao nibs are crunchy cacao bean pieces. The beans undergo commercial processing that turns them into nibs. This involves cleaning, roasting, and shelling the beans. Image Source: Getty Images
Cacao nibs are crunchy cacao bean pieces. The beans undergo commercial processing that turns them into nibs. This involves cleaning, roasting, and shelling the beans. Image Source: Getty Images

Like chocolate, cacao nibs come from cacao beans but aren't as highly processed as chocolate. They're the closest commercial product that you can get to the actual cacao bean. Cacao nibs have all the beneficial nutrients found in chocolate but don't contain as many unhealthy additives.

What are cacao beans?

Cacao beans come from the plant Theobroma cacao. Humans have consumed these beans for thousands of years. They're used to make all cocoa and chocolate products.

The plants were originally domesticated and consumed by the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations in Mesoamerica. The Mayans called this bean the "food of the gods". Today, commercial cacao beans are mostly grown in West Africa and parts of Asia.

Once the beans are harvested, they go through a variety of processing stages. This produces a wide range of familiar products, including:

  • Cacao nibs
  • Cocoa powder
  • Dark chocolate
  • Milk chocolate
  • White chocolate — this uses only the fats from the cacao bean

What are cacao nibs?

Cacao nibs are crunchy cacao bean pieces. The beans undergo commercial processing that turns them into nibs. This involves cleaning, roasting, and shelling the beans.

Not all cacao nibs are created in the same way. They come in various sizes, ranging from small to large bits.

Cacao nibs can undergo further processing to create either cocoa powder or different types of chocolate. They are further ground up and then refined into the sweet products we're all familiar with. But they can also be eaten on their own or as a topping for certain foods.

What nutrients are in cacao nibs?

The exact nutrients contained in cacao nibs vary from brand to brand. The more processed nibs generally have less nutritional value than their less-processed counterparts, and the amount of processing relates to size. The smallest nibs tend to lose the most nutrients when they're created.

Roasting can also modify the chemical composition of cacao nibs. Your best option is to look at the nutrient labels on the different brands of cacao nibs that are available. Choose the one that seems ideal for your needs.

Regardless of brand, all cacao nibs are packed with plenty of beneficial ingredients, including:

  • Proteins
  • Polyphenols — cacao beans are one of the richest sources of dietary polyphenols like catechins, anthocyanidins, and proanthocyanidins
  • Flavanols — these naturally protect plants from toxins and also benefit human health
  • Methylxanthines — this includes theobromine and caffeine
  • Potassium
  • Phosphorus
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Magnesium

In 100 grams of Wegmans brand raw cacao nibs, there are:

  • 13.3 grams of protein
  • 53.3 grams from total fat
  • 26.7 grams of carbohydrates
  • 20 grams of fiber
  • 73 milligrams of calcium
  • 800 milligrams of potassium
  • 67 milligrams of sodium, or salt

This particular brand doesn't contain any sugar or cholesterol. But 100 grams from another common brand (Foods Alive) contains about 7 grams of sugar but has much more magnesium than the first option. The one that's right for you depends on your particular dietary needs.

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How do cacao nibs compare to chocolate?

Cacao nibs are one of the healthiest relatives of chocolate because they're the least processed.

Milk chocolate and white chocolate are some of the most processed cacao bean products. So they're also the least healthy. Dark chocolate contains the highest percentage of actual cacao bean. It's the healthiest out of these processed alternatives.

All chocolate contains additional additives compared to pure cacao nibs, mainly dairy products. This means that cacao nibs are a fantastic dairy-free alternative to chocolate chips.

Chocolate also tends to have greater amounts of less-healthy ingredients, like fats and sugars.

For example, 100 grams of milk chocolate contains:

  • 7.3 grams of protein
  • 36.3 grams of lipids (fat)
  • 50.5 grams of carbohydrates
  • 50.5 grams of sugar
  • 10 milligrams of cholesterol
  • 3.2 grams of fiber
  • 420 milligrams of potassium
  • 262 milligrams of calcium

When you look at these numbers, it's clear that milk chocolate is much worse for you than cacao nibs. Milk chocolate contains less protein, fiber, and potassium and has much more sugar, carbohydrates, fat, and cholesterol. One advantage is that the added dairy provides more calcium than cacao nibs. But there are much healthier ways to get calcium than milk chocolate.

Dark chocolate is much more comparable to cacao beans, but even it's a little worse for you. It tends to have less protein than cacao nibs. For example, a 100-gram serving of dark chocolate only contains 6.6 grams of protein. This is half the amount found in 100 grams of cacao nibs.

The main problem with cacao nibs compared to chocolate is that their high polyphenol content makes them very bitter. You may find them difficult to adjust to if you're used to chocolaty products being sweet. Luckily, many people find that their crunchy texture and bitter taste pair well with salads and other healthy meal options.

What are the health benefits of cacao nibs?

Researchers have debated the health benefits of chocolate for decades. It's undeniable that the cacao bean contains many beneficial nutrients, each with its own health benefits.

Flavanols, for example, have fantastic antioxidant properties. They also improve blood flow to your heart and brain and reduce your risk of getting blood clots.

Methylxanthines have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They can possibly help your gut microbiome by encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria. They're also known to enhance:

  • Arousal
  • Mood
  • Concentration levels

In general, studies that explore eating small amounts of the healthiest types of chocolate regularly indicate that it can reduce your risk of:

There's a good chance that eating products like cacao nibs can also improve your cholesterol and blood sugar and lower your blood pressure.

Can cacao nibs cause health problems?

When it comes to eating cacao products, you need to get the benefits without overdoing it with the unhealthy, sugary derivatives. Studies have consistently shown that eating too much chocolate can lead to problems with your overall health, including obesity.

Cacao products can be a fantastic addition to your diet. They're both tasty and nutritious. Short of eating an unprocessed cacao bean, cacao nibs are one of your healthiest chocolatey options.

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Medically Reviewed on 10/10/2022
References
SOURCES:

Baptist Health: "Health Benefits of Cocoa & 5 Easy Ways to Use It."

Food Research International: "The influence of the roasting process conditions on the polyphenol content in cocoa beans, nibs and chocolates."

Frontiers in Nutrition: "Cocoa, Blood Pressure, and Vascular Function."

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Chocolate, "Food of the Gods": History, Science, and Human Health."

Nutrients: "Chocolate Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies," "Health Benefits of Methylxanthines in Cacao and Chocolate."

University of Kentucky Health Care: "In honor of World Chocolate Day, here are some recipes to help you celebrate (responsibly)."

Phytopathology: "The History of Cacao and Its Diseases in the Americas."

U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Cacao Nibs," "Raw Cacao Nibs."