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What Are Cacao Nibs? Nutrition, Benefits and Culinary Uses

Health + Wellness
Cacao Beans + Cacao Nibs in the Vitamix. WILL POWER / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

Cacao nibs are small pieces of crushed cacao beans — or cocoa beans — that have a bitter, chocolatey flavor.


They're produced from beans derived from the Theobroma cacao tree, also known as the cocoa tree. Cocoa beans are dried after harvesting, then fermented and cracked to produce small, dark bits — or cacao nibs.

Some cacao nibs are roasted while others are not. Unroasted cacao nibs are called raw cacao nibs.

These rich, chocolatey nibs are loaded with nutrients and powerful plant compounds that have been shown to benefit health in many ways.

This article reviews cacao nibs, including their nutrition, benefits and how to add them to your diet.

Cacao Nibs Nutrition

Though small in size, cacao nibs are packed with an impressive amount of nutrients.

They're amongst the least processed cocoa products on the market and substantially lower in sugar than other chocolate products, making them a healthier alternative for chocolate lovers.

One ounce (28 grams) of cacao nibs provides (1):

  • Calories: 175
  • Protein: 3 grams
  • Fat: 15 grams
  • Fiber: 5 grams
  • Sugar: 1 gram
  • Iron: 6% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI)
  • Magnesium: 16% of the RDI
  • Phosphorus: 9% of the RDI
  • Zinc: 6% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 27% of the RDI
  • Copper: 25% of the RDI

Unlike many chocolate products, cacao nibs are naturally low in sugar. They're also a good source of fiber, protein, and healthy fats — nutrients that help promote feelings of fullness (2).

They're rich in many minerals, including iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, manganese, and copper. Magnesium is a mineral needed for over 300 different enzyme reactions in your body but lacking in many people's diets (3).

Phosphorus, magnesium, and manganese are vital for healthy bones, while copper and iron are needed for producing red blood cells that supply oxygen to your body (4).

Additionally, cacao nibs are packed with potent plant compounds, including flavonoid antioxidants, which have been associated with numerous health benefits (5).

Summary

Cacao nibs are highly nutritious, providing an impressive amount of protein, fiber, healthy fats, minerals, and plant compounds like flavonoids.

Packed With Antioxidants

Antioxidants are compounds that help protect your cells from damage caused by an excess of molecules called free radicals.

When free radicals outnumber antioxidants, it leads to a condition known as oxidative stress that has been linked to a number of chronic conditions, such as heart disease, certain cancers, mental decline, and diabetes (6, 7).

Cacao nibs are loaded with antioxidants. These include a class of polyphenol antioxidants called flavonoids, such as epicatechin, catechin and procyanidins.

In fact, cocoa and chocolate products have the highest flavonoid content by weight of any other food (8).

Flavonoids are associated with many health benefits. For example, research shows that people who consume diets rich in flavonoids have lower rates of heart disease, certain cancers, and mental decline (5).

Due to their high flavonoid content, cacao nibs and other cocoa products can make a significant contribution to dietary antioxidant intake.

Summary

Cacao nibs are rich in flavonoid antioxidants, including epicatechin, catechin, and procyanidins.

Benefits of Cacao Nibs

Due to their powerful nutrient and antioxidant content, cacao nibs have been linked to many health benefits.

Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Short-term inflammation is an important part of your body's defense system and helps protect against injury and illness.

On the other hand, chronic inflammation is harmful and has been linked to various health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes (9).

Increased production of free radicals is one possible cause of chronic inflammation. Foods high in antioxidants — such as cacao nibs — help combat this effect (10).

Cacao nibs and other cocoa products have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. For example, research shows that cocoa polyphenols can reduce the activity of the protein NF-κB, which plays a pivotal role in inflammatory processes (11).

Test-tube and animal studies demonstrate that cocoa polyphenols effectively reduce levels of inflammatory markers, such as tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) and interleukin 6 (IL-6) (12, 13).

Some human studies indicate that cocoa can reduce inflammatory markers as well.

A 4-week study in 44 men found that those who consumed 1 ounce (30 grams) of cocoa products that contained 13.9 mg per gram of polyphenols had decreased levels of inflammatory markers (14).

May Boost Immune Health

The potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of cacao nibs may have a positive impact on immune health.

Research shows that cocoa has beneficial effects on your immune system. For example, cocoa flavonoids help decrease inflammation, which can help improve overall immune response (15).

Cocoa may also improve the function of the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), an important part of the immune system located throughout your intestines. The GALT contains approximately 70% of all immune cells in your body (16).

Animal studies have demonstrated that cocoa may have protective effects against food allergies by positively impacting the GALT.

Cocoa-enriched diets have been shown to decrease sensitivity to oral antigens — toxins and allergens — by enhancing the function of a special layer in your intestines that helps protect against food allergy and maintain gut health (17).

A study in rats found that a cocoa-enriched diet inhibited the release of antibodies and inflammatory molecules that lead to serious allergic reactions, such as anaphylaxis, by strengthening the immune system (18).

These results suggest that cocoa products like cacao nibs may be particularly helpful for those with food allergies and other immune conditions. However, more research in this area is needed.

May Benefit Blood Sugar Control

Cacao consumption may benefit those with blood sugar control issues.

Human studies have shown that cocoa can help regulate blood sugar control and improve sensitivity to insulin, a hormone that helps cells absorb blood sugar.

A study in 60 people found that those who ate about 1 ounce (25 grams) of high-polyphenol dark chocolate daily for 8 weeks experienced greater reductions in fasting blood sugar and HbA1c (a marker of long-term blood sugar control) compared to a placebo group (19).

What's more, a recent review of 14 studies in over 500,000 people showed that intake of 2 servings of chocolate per week was associated with a 25% reduced risk of diabetes (20).

Cacao nibs may be one of the best cocoa products to choose for blood sugar regulation, as they're high in blood-sugar stabilizing antioxidants and do not contain any added sugar.

May Improve Heart Health

Many studies have found that cocoa polyphenols — including catechins and anthocyanins — can benefit heart health in many ways.

Cocoa has been shown to reduce numerous heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels in human studies.

A review of 20 studies noted that consumption of flavonoid-rich cocoa products was associated with a significant reduction in blood pressure (2–3 mm Hg) over 2–18 weeks (21).

Cocoa intake has also been shown to improve blood vessel function, blood flow, and HDL (good) cholesterol while decreasing LDL (bad) cholesterol and inflammation — all of which can protect against heart disease (22).

In fact, population studies have linked cocoa intake to a reduced risk of heart failure, coronary artery disease, and stroke (20, 23).

Anticancer Effects

The powerful antioxidants concentrated in cacao nibs may have anticancer properties.

Cocoa antioxidants — including epicatechins and catechins — help reduce inflammation, prevent the spread of cancer cells, and induce death in certain cancer cells.

For example, studies demonstrate that cocoa-enriched diets stopped the spread of colon cancer cells and induced colon cancer cell death in rodents (24).

Test-tube and animal studies also show that cocoa beans have protective effects against lung and prostate cancer (25, 26).

Additionally, population studies indicate that higher intake of flavonoid antioxidants, such as those found in cacao nibs, is associated with a reduced risk of certain cancers, including ovarian and lung cancer (27, 28).

Summary

Cacao nibs and other cocoa products may offer anti-inflammatory effects, boost your immune system, and protect against diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers

Cacao Nib Precautions

Though cacao nibs are generally safe to consume, you should consider potential side effects.

Cocoa beans contain the stimulants caffeine and theobromine. These compounds provide some health benefits but can cause adverse effects when consumed in excess (29, 30).

Therefore, eating an excessive amount of cacao nibs may cause side effects related to excess caffeine intake, including anxiety, jitteriness, and trouble sleeping. Still, cacao nibs eaten in normal amounts are highly unlikely to cause these issues.

Keep in mind that children and pregnant or breastfeeding women are more vulnerable to the effects of stimulants like caffeine.

Additionally, there is some concern over the ingestion of cocoa products in late-stage pregnancy due to the constricting effects of cocoa antioxidants on a fetal blood vessel called the ductus arteriosus.

Therefore, pregnant women should consult their healthcare provider before eating cacao nibs (31, 32).

Lastly, you should avoid cacao nibs if you're allergic or sensitive to chocolate or dietary nickel.

Summary

Cacao nibs contain stimulants that may cause adverse effects if consumed in excess. You should also use caution or avoid cacao nibs if you're pregnant, breastfeeding, or sensitive or allergic to chocolate or dietary nickel.

How to Add Cacao Nibs to Your Diet

Cacao nibs are substantially lower in sugar than other chocolate products and provide an array of powerful health benefits.

They're widely available in stores and online and can be easily incorporated into a variety of both sweet and savory recipes.

Still, keep in mind that cacao nibs have a rich flavor and much more bitter taste than even the darkest of chocolates, as they contain no added sweeteners.

For this reason, sweetness may have to be adjusted when swapping regular chocolate for cacao nibs in recipes.

Here are some ways to add cacao nibs to your diet:

  • Toss cacao nibs into your favorite smoothie.
  • Use them in baked goods like muffins and breads.
  • Blend cacao nibs into homemade nut butters.
  • Stir them into your morning oatmeal.
  • Mix them with nuts and dried fruit for an energy-packed snack.
  • Add cacao nibs to coffee drinks like lattes and cappuccinos.
  • Use them in savory sauces, such as barbecue sauces and mole.
  • Crust steak or duck with crushed cacao nibs for a unique flavor.
  • Blend them into hot chocolate or homemade nut milks.
  • Incorporate cacao nibs with coconut, almond butter, and puréed dates to make healthy energy balls.
  • Use them in place of chocolate chips in granola recipes.
  • Sprinkle roasted cacao nibs on top of yogurt.

As you can see, there are many ways to enjoy cacao nibs. Try experimenting with this cocoa product in your kitchen to find more unique and delicious uses for this highly nutritious ingredient.

Summary

Cacao nibs make an excellent addition to many dishes, including smoothies, baked goods, meat dishes, and beverages.

The Bottom Line

Cacao nibs are a highly nutritious chocolate product made from crushed cocoa beans.

They're exceptionally rich in antioxidants that help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation.

Cocoa products like cacao nibs have been linked to reduced heart disease and diabetes risk, as well as other health benefits.

Incorporating cacao nibs into a balanced diet is sure to boost health while satisfying your chocolate cravings.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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