Cacao Nibs

It is a rarity to find someone who doesn’t enjoy a nice dose of chocolate – at least once in a while. Then of course there are those, like me, who can’t seem to keep their paws off the rich dreamy delicacy. Good thing this food contains nutrients that are good for your heart, skin and brain! The latest addition to the “chocolate” family of foods is cacao nibs – pieces of real chocolate derived from the cacao bean – which are teeming with nutrients.

From the Tree to the Edible Nib

The accurate name for the tree that gives us the dark, rich cocoa powder we are familiar with is the cacao (rhymes with cow) tree.  They thrive in hot, rainy environments, usually near the equator – Africa, Asia, Central America, South America, with most coming from West Africa. Elongated, melon-like pods grow on the trunk or main branches of the cacao tree and turn a vibrant gold color when ripe. Harvest is typically a family affair for the cacao tree farmer. The pods are broken open and the 20 to 50 cream-colored cacao beans are collected, while the husk and inner membrane are discarded. [1]

The cacao beans –translated “food of the gods” – are packed in heaps and covered with mats or banana leaves. The temperature within the beans rises and they begin to ferment, which converts the sugars in the beans to lactic acid and acetic acid – ultimately reducing the bitter taste. Enzymes within the beans also kick into action and form substances that help set the stage for the chocolatey flavor of the bean after it has been roasted.[2]

Now the beans are ready for drying, which must be done because of the high humidity generated during the fermentation process. In certain times of the year, the beans can be left to dry in the sun; other times solar dryers are needed. The beans are turned frequently and any foreign matter or germinated beans are removed from the stock. At this point, the beans have lost half their weight from moisture and are ready to be shipped.[3]

After inspection and cleaning, the beans are ready to be roasted – either with the shell on or removed. This is where the cocoa’s flavor really comes alive. Either way, the shell is discarded and the “nib” resides inside – which can be considered “real chocolate.” This is what is chopped into bits and sold for consumption, either raw or roasted. The cacao nib is also what goes on to yield the three components:

  • Chocolate liquor: The non-alcoholic liquor (or unsweetened chocolate) obtained through grinding the cacao nibs (or unsweetened chocolate) of the cacao bean into a smooth, liquid state.
  • Cocoa butter: The dairy-free, natural fat present in cacao nib obtained by pressing the chocolate liquor.
  • Cocoa powder: This solid is what is left after the cocoa butter is pressed out of the cocoa liquid.

“Nibby” Health Benefits

Most of the health benefits associated with cacao nibs and cocoa powder can be attributed to its antioxidant content.  Antioxidants are nutrients that combat free radicals that damage cells and tissues throughout the body – so essentially antioxidants protect the body from any number of conditions and symptoms, not to mention general aging. The specific antioxidant found in cocoa is a flavonoid called phenolic acid or polyphenols. While other foods and beverages contain these flavonoids – red wine, grape juice, green and black tea – cocoa powder has been shown to surpass them in antioxidant capacity. [4] For example, a 1.5-ounce chocolate bar provides approximately 200 mg polyphenols, while a 5-ounce glass of red wine is needed to reach the same amount.

Four powerful reasons to make the next treat you reach for cacao-rich are:

Heart Health

The nutrients in cocoa have been found to reduce one’s cardiovascular disease risk by limiting LDL cholesterol oxidation, decreasing inflammation, lowering blood pressure and relaxing blood vessels.[5],[6],[7] One study conducted at John Hopkins University School of Medicine accidently found cocoa’s anti- platelet clumping effect is similar to taking aspirin. The researchers went as far as saying a few squares of chocolate a day can reduce the risk of a heart attack by almost 50 per cent in some cases.[8]

Skin Protection

A small study conducted by German researchers found a half-cup of flavonoid-enhanced cocoa a day (similar to those found in a little over 3 ounces of dark chocolate) for three months made the skin of 24 women moister, smoother and less damaged with exposure to ultraviolet light. It is thought the flavonoids actually increased blood flow and hydration of the skin.[9]

Mental boost

Researchers have found chocolate can aid in memory, attention, problem solving and alertness. Unfortunately, these benefits have more to do with the stimulants the food contains – theobromine, phenethylamine and caffeine – than its flavonoid content. Just for comparison’s sake, a one ounce piece of dark chocolate contains approximately 20 mg of caffeine, compared to an 8 oz cup of coffee that can average between 60 to 120 mg – so there isn’t much caffeine, but enough to give one a “lift.”

Improved insulin response

A small Italian study showed intriguing insulin response results when subjects consumed 100 grams of dark chocolate containing approximately 500 mg of polyphenol compounds. Compared to the control group eating white chocolate (which contains no cocoa, thus no flavonoids), the dark chocolate eaters had improved insulin resistance and sensitivity – meaning they were better able to metabolize glucose.[10] This is excellent news for those with diabetes and other insulin-related conditions.

Chocolate Reality Check

While this dark colored food does stand to offer some valuable nutrition, look at the whole package. Most chocolate on the market today is drowning in sugar and milk solids (i.e. milk chocolate), which dramatically reduces the cacao content. So keep a realistic perspective on your chocolate-eating habits. First and foremost, pick the best source. Cacao nibs are real, unadulterated chocolate, no sugar and no additives – nothing except the natural antioxidants and other compounds naturally found in this plant food with a crunchy, nut-like texture.

Granted, cacao nibs don’t have the same sweetness or melt-in-your-mouth texture as a chocolate bar, but what they lack in sweetness they make up for in nutrition. There are also a number of fun ways to incorporate these little nutritious nibs into snacks, baked goods and desserts. Try them on top of yogurt, added into trail mix or replace a few tablespoons ground into a recipe calling for cocoa powder.[*] Many companies are now producing high cacao content chocolate bars (some contain up to 74% cacao), such as Rapunzel, Dagoba, Chocolove, Endangered Species and more. And straight cacao nibs are just starting to find their way into trail mixes and other goodies.

One last caution is to know your limits. As with anything containing stimulant compounds, don’t go overboard. Everyone’s ideal amount will be different. Just be aware of their effects and eat them accordingly. While we don’t want to make a full meal out of cacao nibs, their superfood status sure warrants their consumption. These crunchy nuggets are easily incorporated into a number of foods and impart that chocolaty flavor loved by so many, but with a nutritional kick that your body will appreciate!


References

[1] World Cocoa Foundation. Encouraging Sustainable, Responsible Cocoa Growing. From the Tree to the Table. Found at www.worldcocoafoundation.org on April 4, 2007.

[2] World Cocoa Foundation. Encouraging Sustainable, Responsible Cocoa Growing. From the Tree to the Table. Found at www.worldcocoafoundation.org on April 4, 2007.

[3] World Cocoa Foundation. Encouraging Sustainable, Responsible Cocoa Growing. From the Tree to the Table. Found at www.worldcocoafoundation.org on April 4, 2007.

[4] Lee KW, Kim YJ, Lee HJ, Lee CY: Cocoa has more phenolic phytochemicals and a higher antioxidant capacity than teas and red wine. J Agric Food Chem 2003, 51(25):7292-7295

[5] Kris-Etherton PM, Keen CL: Evidence that the antioxidant flavonoids in tea and cocoa are beneficial for cardiovascular health. Curr Opin Lipidol 2002, 13(1):41-49

[6] Steinberg FM, Bearden MM, Keen CL: Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids: implications for cardiovascular health.
J Am Diet Assoc 2003, 103(2):215-223.

[7] Ding, Eric. Chocolate and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review. Nutrition & Metabolism 2006, 3:2

[8] John  Hopkins Medicine. Press Release. CHOCOLATE “OFFENDERS” TEACH SCIENCE A SWEET LESSON: Study helps explain heart benefits from daily – but small – dose of chocolate. November 14, 2006. Found at http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/Press_releases/2006/11_14a_06.html

[9] Heinrich and W. Stahl. Long-term ingestion of high flavanol cocoa provides photoprotection against UV-induced erythema and improves skin condition in women. Journal of Nutrition. 2006. 136(June):1565-1569

[10] Cesar G Fraga. Cocoa, diabetes, and hypertension: should we eat more chocolate? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 81, No. 3, 541-542, March 2005