The term “superfood” is thrown around a lot by natural health and wellness personalities, food manufacturers, and the media. According to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the first time “superfood” was used was in the marketing of bananas during World War I. And while there is no official benchmark for a superfood, foods with extraordinary nutrient profiles and health benefits, like natural cacao, can legitimately be referred to in this manner.
Simply put, cacao is chocolate in its purest form. We’ve known for generations how amazing chocolate tastes, and now research is proving dark chocolate and cacao demonstrate remarkable health benefits. According to the National Institute of Health’s U.S. National Library of Medicine, there are nearly 400 clinical studies on cacao either ongoing, completed, active, or recruiting.
There is no doubt that cacao is hot in the the alternative and complementary health arena as well as the conventional medical world. Dark chocolate and cacao are being studied in relation to blood pressure, insulin resistance, autism, peripheral artery disease, Parkinson’s disease, and even obesity—just to name a few. So what is making researchers take a serious look into cacao’s health potential? Mostly, its cacao’s extremely high concentration of flavanols.
According to the University of California San Francisco, flavanols are phytonutrients found in cocoa, cherries, apples, grapes, tea, and red wine. Researchers attribute the potent antioxidant power of these foods to their high concentration of flavanols. Is dark chocolate really a superfood? We’d have to say yes, based on past and current clinical research.
However, it is important to understand that even high-quality milk chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate does not provide nearly the concentration of flavanols as cocoa powder, cocoa butter, cacao powder, or cacao nibs do. And, milk chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate, and even some brands of dark chocolate, contain unhealthy ingredients like processed sugar, stabilizers, preservatives, and dairy.
What Is Cacao?
Cacao is the most pure, unadulterated form of the cocoa bean. And, unlike pure cocoa powder, it is not produced with high heat, which allows it to retain more nutrients, including powerful flavanols.
Cacao beans come from the Theobroma cacao tree that is native to South America and Central America tropical regions. But today, nearly 70% of the world’s cacao crops are grown in Western African countries, including Nigeria, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.
Growing cacao requires intense and difficult manual labor—year round. Two parts of the cacao plant are used: the tree and the fruit. The cacao tree flowers and creates cacao fruit throughout the year. The fruits don’t ripen all at the same time, which means trees have to be monitored closely so the fruits are harvested when ripe. Often, especially in the African countries, children as young as five are used in the farming of cacao.
The fruits are large pods, each containing two to three dozen cacao beans, or seeds. The beans are protected in the pod by a white, sweet pulp. Once the cacao beans are removed from the pod, they are then fermented. Before they can be processed into cacao powder, they are also dried and cleaned.
Once the fermented and dried raw cacao beans arrive at their destination, they are cracked or crushed, resulting in their “chip-like” size and cacao nibs. At this stage, cacao nibs have the texture of roasted coffee and a deep bitter chocolatey taste.
Whole cacao beans contain approximately 54% fat that can be extracted through compression to create cacao butter. Cacao nibs can also be ground into raw cacao powder, and then used in the same manner as you would cocoa powder.
There is a vast difference between a cacao nib and a chocolate chip. While both have a chocolate flavor, a cacao nib is simply the cacao bean, fermented, dried, and cracked. A chocolate chip, on the other hand, is made from a chocolate liqueur, fat, and processed sugar. It is all melted together to create a homogenized liquid and then formed into chocolate chips. Not the same creation at all!
History of Cacao Nibs
Indigenous Central and South American peoples are believed to have harvested cacao beans as early as 1900 BC. The cacao seeds were prized, and in addition to being used for food, medicine, and religious rituals, some tribes used the cacao bean as currency. In some of these native cultures, cacao was restricted for elite members, while still other cultures believed it was provided by God.
European explorers were intrigued by this almond-like bean, as cacao trees, at that time, were only growing in Central and South America. It is believed that Spanish Conquistadors were the first to “discover” cacao beans while they were colonizing the New World.
History shows that the European colonizers are likely responsible for creating the chocolate we know and love today. When they arrived in the New World, they brought processed sugar, which was new to the native South American and Central American cultures.
They quickly found that adding sugar and spices to the cacao bean drink combatted the unpleasant bitterness, but didn’t dilute its stimulating properties. The cacao bean drink was embraced, and when the explorers returned home to Europe, cacao became popular in royal courts and new “chocolate houses.”
It wasn’t long before cacao was transformed into cocoa powder—leading to the decadent confections we know and love today. When the Industrial Revolution arrived, it became easier and cheaper to process cacao into cocoa powder.
In 1850, Joseph Fry found that mixing cocoa powder with cacao butter formed a solid, easily manipulated mass. This opened new culinary opportunities for this mysterious bean from the New World. Soon, chocolatiers across Europe began honing their craft, creating delightful truffles and what was then known as pralines.
Today, the International Cocoa Organization projects that worldwide production of cocoa for the 2017-2018 season will top 5,056,302 tons or over 10.2 billion pounds. To give you a visual, this is the equivalent of 438,000 railroad cars filled with cacao beans stretching over 9,500 miles—or from Denver to London and back!
Cacao vs. Cocoa Powder
As we’ve mentioned above, cacao is the cleanest, least processed form of the cacao bean. In contrast, cocoa powder is created by processing cacao beans under high heat before grinding them into a fine powder. High-heat processing can kill many of cacao’s innate nutrients, including the powerful flavanols.
Cacao nibs have over three times the fat, nearly twice the protein, and less than half the carbs of unsweetened cocoa powder. But they also have only one-third of the fiber and significantly less iron. In terms of antioxidants, cacao is believed to be one of the highest sources on the planet, while unsweetened cocoa powder runs a ways behind.
This isn’t to say that cocoa powder doesn’t have its health benefits—it absolutely does. But, if you are looking for the healthiest, least processed option, cacao nibs are the way to go. Fortunately, high-quality cacao nibs are available in most natural grocery stores and in some national grocery chains.
6 Healthy Nutrients in Cacao Nibs
So, what makes cacao nibs healthy? It is their concentration of antioxidants and flavanols, especially epicatechin. Clinical studies over the last several decades have echoed what the native tribes of Central and South America have known for thousands of years—cacao is delicious, and as a stimulant, it can provide essential energy.
Let’s look at the evidence-based health benefits of cacao nibs and unsweetened cocoa powder.
Epicatechin is a flavonoid that is water soluble and easily oxidized in the body. This bioactive compound is classified as a flavanol, and it is found in cacao beans and green tea.
According to a clinical study published in the journal Vascular Pharmacology, dark chocolate’s cardiovascular benefits are due to biologically active compounds, including theobromine and epicatechin. Researchers note there is still significant debate in how these phytochemicals work together.
2. Dietary Fiber
Fiber plays a number of essential roles in the body. It is associated with fighting cholesterol, stabilizing blood sugar levels, and relieving constipation, and it helps us feel full, longer. In fact, in a long-term randomized controlled trial, researchers found that getting more fiber can help with weight loss even if you don’t make any other dietary or lifestyle changes.
In addition to weight loss, dietary fiber, specifically from cacao, has been proven to modify genes related to the immune system. In an animal trial published in the European Journal of Nutrition, researchers concluded that increased cocoa consumption assisted in lipid metabolism and immune system function. They credit the results with cocoa’s dietary fiber and polyphenol compounds.
Dietary fiber is also important in the management of irritable bowel syndrome, which is often caused by a deficient intake of dietary fiber. According to a study published in the International Journal of Molecular Medicine, adequate intake of soluble fiber can help ease many IBS symptoms.
Cocoa powder is uniquely qualified as a dietary fiber, as it contains both insoluble and soluble fibers. In a two-stage, randomized, single-blind clinical trial, researchers from the Department of Metabolism and Nutrition at the Spanish National Research Council have found that regular consumption of cocoa products improves bowel habits and health.
Just 1 tablespoon of cacao beans offers 27 milligrams of magnesium. Magnesium is essential to over 300 biochemical reactions in the human body, and many health professionals believe magnesium deficiency is significantly more common than previously thought.
Adding cacao nibs to your morning smoothie or your lunchtime salad can boost your magnesium levels. And, according to researchers from Yale University Prevention Research Center, magnesium is essential for vascular function, energy production, nerve function, and muscle relaxation.
Additionally, it is well-accepted that a magnesium deficiency can cause anxiety symptoms. And, according to a report from researchers at the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Innsbruck, eating magnesium-rich foods every day, like cacao nibs and cocoa powder, may help keep you from becoming deficient in this essential mood-related nutrient.
Antioxidants are raved about in natural health and wellness circles, and for good reason. These naturally occurring chemicals fight the oxidation of cells. They can be found in many plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
Antioxidants include a number of nutrients, such as vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and certain minerals. Flavanols, polyphenols, phytoestrogens, and phenols are also antioxidants. Of these, flavanols, like those found in cacao nibs, are recognized for their cardiovascular protection.
University of California San Francisco cardiologists and researchers have found that the flavanols in cocoa decrease blood pressure, improve blood vessel health, and increase the number of circulating angiogenic cells in patients with cardiovascular disease. The authors of the report state that cocoa products, as well as red wine, tea, and some fruits, demonstrate a cardioprotective benefit.
In a report published in the journal Circulation, researchers stress that cocoa reduces the risk of both cardiovascular disease and stroke. Authors of the study point to the high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties in cocoa, as well as cocoa’s ability to activate nitric oxide.
Just a single ounce of cacao nibs provides 6% of the DV of iron. This may not seem like a lot, but if you add an ounce or two a day to your diet, you can reap the health benefits. If you are vegan or vegetarian, cacao nibs are a good source of iron.
What many people don’t know is that iron is best absorbed when consumed with vitamin C-rich foods. For a tasty snack rich in iron and vitamin C, grind cacao nibs into a coarse powder, and then dip peeled orange sections into the powder. The result is a touch sweet, a touch bitter, and incredibly satisfying.
6. Phenylethylamine and Anandamide
Phenylenthylamine is a stimulant that naturally occurs in cacao beans, and it is a byproduct of phenylalanine, an amino acid that occurs naturally in our bodies. Phenylenthylamine, or PEA, can make us feel alert and focused. This phytonutrient can give you a physical and mental boost, without the unpleasant side effects of caffeine and other stimulants.
Anandamide is recognized as the bliss molecule, giving chocolate products their ability to improve mood and brain function. This molecule is an adrenal-related chemical that provides a sense of well-being, warmth, and happiness. Some researchers have even hypothesized that anandamide can help you fall in love. Certain native cultures kept cacao beans just for the men, as it was considered too powerful of a love stimulant for a woman.
Using Cacao Nibs
In the U.S. cacao nibs are readily available, and more and more celebrity chefs are using them in recipes (see below!). For the health conscious, cacao nibs can be added to smoothies, steeped and blended with warm milk to create a healthy mocha latte, sprinkled on oatmeal, or even over salads.
Cacao nibs have a unique bitter taste that isn’t necessarily off-putting. However, if you chomp into a nib expecting it to be sweet, you will be unpleasantly surprised. To get the full health benefits of the cacao bean, don’t heat it past 104 °F when cooking. However, even when you add it to a traditional mole sauce or other recipes, you can still enjoy this superfood’s power.
10 Outstanding Cacao Recipes
Since cacao nibs are packed with health benefits, and they are available readily online and in natural health food stores, you can easily add them to your diet. Here are 10 recipes to try.
1. Hot Chocolate
If you’ve ever watched the Food Network, there is no doubt that you know Alton Brown. This culinary scientist has hopped on the cacao nib bandwagon and created a healthy hot chocolate recipe using cacao nibs and 70% bittersweet chocolate. It is a perfect warming drink to enjoy on cool winter days.
Alton Brown’s Cacao Nib Hot Chocolate recipe comes together quite quickly and he uses a French press to steep the cacao nibs in warm milk and to create a delightfully frothy concoction. While his recipe calls for sugar, you could easily swap that out for maple syrup or another favorite healthy and natural sweetener.
2. Coconut Flour Pancakes
It could very well be argued that cacao nibs are best at home in breakfast recipes because of their chocolatey goodness and stimulating properties. And this Coconut and Cacao Nib Pancake recipe from TheHealthyFoodie.com is a great example of how easy it is to incorporate this superfood into your diet.
Believe it or not, this is a gluten-free, grain-free, Paleo-friendly pancake recipe that uses egg whites, coconut flour, and hazelnut butter. Light, fluffy, and delicious, these ingredients pack a punch of antioxidants, healthy fats, and protein.
3. Keto Coconut Oil Fat Bombs
If you are following a keto lifestyle, these fat bombs are for you! This Coconut Oil and Cacao Nib Fat Bomb recipe created by With Food + Love, contains only keto-friendly ingredients like cacao powder and cacao nibs, coconut oil, and stevia.
4. Tropical Fruit Salad
Nothing is quite as refreshing as a fruit salad. Cool, sweet, crunchy, and satisfying, fresh fruit is a perfect snack or lunch. And, when you add cacao nibs, you can boost the fruit salad’s fiber and protein content. Try this delicious Tropical Fruit Salad with Cacao Nibs recipe from Chowhound.
With bananas, kiwi, mango, papaya, and hazelnuts, this fruit salad is rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. And, even though cacao nibs are not sweet and lean towards bitter, when added to this sweet and tangy fruit salad, cacao nibs become kid-friendly.
Yes, you read that right—pizza! Once you try it, you’ll agree that Cacao Nib and Spiced Lamb Sausage Pizza should be on every pizza menu. Cacao’s rich, nutty, and earthy flavor is a perfect match for lamb and wild game. And here, French-trained celebrity chef David Lebovitz has created a simply masterful recipe.
Hearty, delicious, and packed with flavor, this pizza recipe features healthy ingredients, including lamb, cinnamon, cheese, and tomatoes. High in protein and loaded with antioxidants, this dish will make you a believer in using cacao in savory dishes.
At first thought, this might seem off-putting. But, remember, ceviche is a Mexican preparation of seafood, and cacao originates from the Mayan culture. This recipe for Red Snapper and Cacao Nib Ceviche features fresh fish, mango, avocado, onion, chilies, citrus juice, and, of course, cacao nibs.
This recipe comes together quickly, as the fish marinates in the citrus juices and olive oil. The sweetness of the mango and orange juice and the tartness of the tomatillos create a beautiful marriage complemented by the bitterness of the cacao nibs.
7. Coconut Snowball Cookies
Of course, cacao nibs are also a perfect addition to sweets and desserts. This Paleo Coconut Snowballs with Cacao Nibs recipe contains shredded coconut, almond flour, coconut butter, coconut oil, honey, and cacao nibs. The best part? This sweet treat by Foraged Dish comes together quickly and doesn’t require baking.
8. Brownie Bites
Let’s be honest, few things are as satisfying as an ooey-gooey brownie. However, they are rarely considered a healthy treat. But this recipe from ifoodreal.com features healthy ingredients like bananas, avocado, coconut oil, oats, dates, and chia seeds. This Cacao Nibs Brownie Bites recipe doesn’t require baking, so the full nutritional power of the cacao nibs remains intact.
Light, fluffy, and perfect for snacking, homemade marshmallows made from cacao powder, gelatin, vanilla, and honey are an absolutely perfect treat. This Chocolate Paleo Marshmallow recipe from The Movement Menu does take some time and patience, but these nuggets of cacao chewiness are worth the effort.
10. Creme de Cacao
For the adults in the room, Homemade Creme de Cacao is sure to please. This is definitely not the healthiest cacao recipe on the list, but everything in moderation, including moderation, as they say. Once you’ve made this cacao alcoholic beverage, you can drink it straight, create a signature martini, or add it to your favorite homemade chocolate ice cream to keep it from over-freezing.
Cacao Precautions and Considerations
- Dogs: The cacao bean contains high levels of theobromine, the element in chocolate that is toxic to dogs. Be sure to keep your cacao nibs, and all cacao products like chocolate bars, away from your pets to keep them safe.
- Fat and calories: Cacao nibs are high in calories and fats. And while they are healthy fats, certain individuals, including those with chronic pancreatitis, should enjoy high-fat foods in moderation.
- Heavy metals: According to a report in the journal Science of the Total Environment, heavy metal accumulates in the beans of cacao, affecting their quality and health benefits. Starting in 2019, the European Community will officially limit the levels of certain heavy metals, including cadmium, found in cacao beans.
- Pesticides and fertilizers: Chemicals including pesticides and fertilizers are a real concern in cocoa production. In fact, chemical fertilizers used in cacao plantations are often misused. The overuse of fertilizers and pesticides in cacao growing causes soil and water contamination, as well as other environmental concerns. And, because cacao farming is done in poorer regions of the world such as West Africa, Central America, and South America, intensive farming is leading to the decimation of rainforests, as it is easier to clear forests and plant new cacao trees than it is to replace dead trees with new ones.
- Human rights: According to a 2015 report from Tulane University, over 6 million children work in cacao farming and processing—just in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. These children, from the ages of 5 to 17, are working on the cacao farms spreading fertilizers without proper protection, harvesting cacao pods with machetes, and experiencing other extremely hazardous working conditions. When selecting your cacao nibs, cacao powder, or cacao butter, be sure to choose one that meets or exceeds the standards of Green America or other watchdog organizations, such as a fairtrade organization.