Most of us have a love-hate relationship with chocolate: love the taste, hate our inability to consume it in healthy quantities. But go back a step in the chocolate-making process and you’ll find something that’s much healthier: cacao nibs.
Cacao nibs are fast gaining popularity with health experts and vegan cooks, who tout them as a healthy (and crunchy) alternative to chocolate or cocoa in both savoury and sweet dishes.
But first, a little about where cacao nibs come from.
Nibs are found inside cacao beans, which are harvested from the cacao pods of the Theobroma cacao tree. Producers extract the beans from the pods and then ferment and dry them before they are processed.
The cacao tree is native to Brazil’s upper Amazon region, but cacao beans are also grown in other countries with tropical climates, including Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as those with warm and dry weather, such as Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast in Africa.
A UK-based chocolate guide explains that when the shells of the pod are removed, it is vital to keep the nibs – the internal part of the bean, also known as the cotyledon – in large pieces, both for easy separation and to ensure that the original flavour profile and nutritional value are retained.
Sometimes the beans are roasted before they are made into chocolate or cocoa butter. Unroasted cacao nibs are also safe to eat.
The International Cocoa Organization says that a typical cocoa or cacao plantation takes about three to five years to yield a crop, although some hybrid plants can produce pods much earlier. The trees have a lifespan of nearly 30 years.
Cocoa trees can also be grown within tropical forests. In Malaysia, some smaller-scale farmers find that cocoa trees thrive amongst crops such as rubber, durian and bananas.
This planting method allows the cocoa trees to benefit from the shade of the taller trees. More importantly, these small scale producers find that durian and banana trees act as natural pest repellent and pair well with the cocoa crop.
An abundant bean
Cacao nibs are filled with powerful plant compounds and nutrients. In contrast to processed chocolate, they are also low in sugar: every 100 grams of cacao nibs contains less than 2 grams of sugar.
Roughly 30 grams of cacao nibs contains just 130 calories or about 7 per cent of your calorie allowance for a 2,000-calorie diet. But out of these 30 grams, nearly one-third are fibre, which is enough to meet 25 to 35 per cent of your daily fibre needs.
Cacao nibs also contain various minerals, such as zinc, phosphorus, iron and magnesium, and provide a rich source of minerals – particularly magnesium, which is needed for over 300 enzyme processes in our body.
Copper and iron assist in red cell production, making cacao nibs a great source of minerals for those on a meat-free or vegan diet.
Cacao nibs have also earned their reputation as a superfood because they contain plant compounds that have flavonoid antioxidants.
Based on the Harvard Health Publishing journal issued by the Harvard Medical School, cacao beans or nibs have flavonoids that lower blood pressure and antioxidants that reduce the formation of plaque that may clog arteries. Both effects help to lower the risk of heart diseases.
How to eat (or cook!) with cacao nibs
If you pick up some cacao nibs and sniff them, you’re likely to be reminded of a cup of rich, hot chocolate. But be prepared for a deep, bitter taste, which some food authors say it is more bitter than dark chocolate.
With no sugar or artificial sweeteners, cacao nibs can stay bitter but tend to turn slightly fruity or nutty when roasted. The crunchy nibs can be described as a cross between chopped nuts and coffee beans.
If you’re after a milder taste, pick up cacao nibs that have been roasted. According to the UK Chocolate guide, roasting removes the bitterness of the cacao beans or nibs because the heat cooks away the bean’s astringent and volatile acids.
Cacao nibs are typically used in baked goods and can be sprinkled over cereals, oatmeal or muesli to pack some superfood punch into your breakfast.
If you’re after more adventurous recipe you can pair cacao nibs with meat, as its dark earthy flavours complement pork and lamb.
In this recipe, cacao nibs’ aromatic flavours – which some have described as nuts and red wine – are turned into a meat rub. You can combine cacao nibs, fennel seeds, brown sugar and cocoa powder, along with seasoning to marinate pork tenderloin.
Or if you like raw fish, try this ceviche with cacao nibs recipe. The nibs add a different texture and crunchiness to this Mexican red snapper dish, and you can pair the nibs and fish with sweet mango, avocado and citrus (prepare yourself for fresh and explosive flavours!).
Strawberries and chocolate are a classic combination and smoothie lovers will find fall in love all over again with this strawberry and cacao nibs smoothie. Skip the sugar in this smoothie and have it for dessert or after you’ve hit the gym.