By Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN
When we hear cacao or coca we think chocolate, right? Sweet and sugary chocolate is something that we eat in desserts and as treats. However, chocolate as we know it and in it’s most natural form, which is the cacao bean (or nib), is a bitter and nutrient packed superfood that offers a host of nutrients and that can be a healthful addition to any meal or snack throughout the day.
Let’s break down the differences between the cacao nib, cacao powder, cocoa powder and chocolate:
Cacao nibs: Raw vs Roasted Cacao Nibs
The cacao nib is made from breaking the larger bean into smaller pieces, which is why it’s in it’s most natural form (only when it is sold raw as heating can destroy some of the nutrients within). It’s important to note that certain types of heating processes, like those that are much slower and at lower temperatures tend to help preserve nutrient content. Although some nutrients such as vitamin C may be degraded with heat, roasted cacao nibs also offer some healthy nutrients. If roasted cacao nibs are your choice, be sure to purchase plain roasted as often extra flavors and ingredients may be added in the roasting process. Overall, a roasted cacao nib is still considered to be in it’s original and most natural form (barring any added ingredients as previously mentioned) and tends to be the most expensive option for purchase.
Cacao Nibs vs Cacao Powder
Cacao powder is made directly from the cacao nib and is produced by pulverizing the raw or roasted nib into a powder. Cacao powder generally retains all or most of the nutrient content (including calories and most of the fat) of the cacao nib especially when the raw nib is ground to make the powder as it lacks exposure to heat. Cacao powder generally does not have any added sugar or other ingredients and tends to be slightly less expensive than the cacao nib.
Cacao Powder vs Cocoa Powder
Cocoa powder generally has fewer calories and grams though on average more added ingredients that can include sugar and fewer nutrients as cocoa powder is most often heated. When purchasing cocoa powder it’s important to look for a variety without added sugars and other ingredients such as milk powders. Although some nutrients may be lost with the heating process, most of the antioxidant content of cacao is retained in the heated cocoa powder, especially if a darker chocolate cocoa powder is purchased (also less likelihood of milk powders and other ingredients). While cacao powder has more fat and calories, cacao power does retain the fiber content; for example, 1 tablespoon contains about 12 calories and about 2 grams of fiber.
Cacao Nibs vs Chocolate
Chocolate is generally thought of as furthest from the natural cacao nib and there are often many other ingredients added including milk powders and fat emulsifiers such as soy lecithin. Some chocolate varieties may be more healthful than others, darker varieties without added milk powders and less added sugar for example, however, all chocolate is heated in the process and therefore some nutrients may be lost.
More About the Cacao Nib:
Cacao beans or nibs are grown on a tree called the Theobroma cacao tree, which is a small evergreen tree native to tropical regions of Central and South America. The cacao beans that grow from the tree are the origin of cocoa, chocolate, and chocolate flavors.
Cacao nibs are dark brown and look like tiny coffee beans. In their raw form, they have no added flavors or sugars and are loaded with nutrients.
Why they are a nutrient-dense superfood…
Though tiny in size, cacao nibs are rich in an abundance of nutrients. Firstly, they’re a good source of fiber- as 1 oz of cacao nibs provides almost 9 grams. Cacao nibs are also sources of electrolytes and minerals such as as potassium, magnesium, and chromium. Potassium is an important electrolyte that aids in nerve conduction, muscle contraction and also plays a role in hydration- not to mention it’s important role in helping to balance blood pressure. Magnesium, another important nutrient, not only acts as an electrolyte in the body, but it also plays an important role in bone formation and strength, in maintaining normal heart rhythm, in blood pressure regulation and in making proteins that function in many different ways in our bodies. Lastly, chromium is a mineral that has been touted to benefit with blood sugar control and regulation.
Cacao nibs are also a rich source of phytonutrients (plant-based nutrients) and antioxidants; their rich dark brown color (hint: look for other richly-colored fruits and vegetables for good sources of antioxidants) indicates a dense source of these nutrients. Cacao nibs are a rich source of phytonutrients called polyphenols found in many different fruits, vegetables, teas and other plant-based foods. Polyphenols are broken down into a few different categories, one of which includes a powerful antioxidant family known as flavonoids, also found in cacao. Specifically, cacao contains flavonoid-based antioxidant compounds like catechins, epicatechins and proanthocyanidins.
Flavonoids and polyphenol-rich foods in general, due to their rich source of nutrients offer many benefits to our bodies, have been touted to help “mop up” free radicals that can damage our cells and over time lead to disease and even cancer; research conducted on antioxidants has suggested that flavonoid-type antioxidants in particular may help to interfere with development of cancer. Flavonoids have also been touted for their cardiovascular benefit as they may help to prevent free radical oxidation of “bad cholesterol” LDL, which over time can cause inflammation and heart disease. Flavonoids may also offer overall anti-inflammatory benefits to the cardiovascular system and may work to help prevent blood clots and to help improve blood pressure.
Other nutrient benefits include mood-boosting properties thanks to the compound theobromine that can act as a stimulant, and the amino acid tryptophan that plays a role in producing an important mood-boosting chemical, serotonin. Cacao may also play a role in helping our bodies to produce more endorphins that are also “feel good” chemicals.
Nutrient Profile of Cacao Nibs
Cacao nibs are not only nutrient dense when it comes to minerals, electrolytes, antioxidants and other important components, but they’re also a good source of healthy fat and fiber too.
1 oz of cacao nibs contains
– 130 calories
– 12 grams of fat
– 9 grams of fiber
– 4 grams of protein
How to use cacao nibs?
Cacao nibs can be used in a variety of ways. I personally love them as a crunchy addition to salads, oatmeal, and smoothies, but they can be used in a variety of ways. Try some of our favorite recipes below: