difference between cacao nibs vs cacao powder side-by-side

What Are Cacao Nibs and the Benefits vs. Cocoa or Chocolate?

[toc]Some of the most egregious superfood scams involve chocolate.

Organic, gluten free, and non-GMO protein bars, granolas, and snacks will tout it as a healthy starring ingredient, while forgetting to mention that they’re adding as much sugar as a candy bar.

The standard size Snickers bar has 20g of sugar. Vega’s choco-coconut protein bar clocks in at 19g. Plus with all the processing, who knows how much antioxidant power is left?

If you’re sick of these nutritional abominations, then this food is for you.

What are cacao nibs?

what inside of raw cacao pod looks like
Used to make chocolate, this is what the inside of a raw cacao pod looks like. Macambo is very similar.

They are the least processed form of chocolate.

Cacao nibs are made from the “beans” of the Theobroma cacao plant. Technically seeds, these are removed from the pods and fermented with yeast for 5-10 days in closed containers. This changes their color to dark brown. Lastly, they’re air dried or roasted.

The nutritional difference between cacao nibs and cacao powder is fat content. The white outer lining of the bean contains the most fat, known as butter. This is removed before making the powder, which is why it has low fat content. With nibs, the butter is left intact and the beans haven’t been ground.

The flavor

What cacao nibs taste like is bitter, comparable to black coffee. They’re not like normal chocolate, since there’s no sugar added. This shortfall in flavor is made up with the enjoyable crunch of the nibs and their buttery texture on your tongue. For best taste, use as a topping on something sweeter.

big acai bowl with cacao nibs, blueberries, banana

That’s why nibs are a favorite topping for acai bowls.

Some sources erroneously claim that nibs are just the unprocessed raw beans which have been chopped or coarsely ground. That’s not true.

They can be raw in the sense that they’re processed below 118 °F (48 °C). Though for both the nibs and the powder, even when they are advertised as raw they have been fermented, at the very least.

This is because to get the taste of chocolate – even the unsweetened cacao powder – there needs to be fermentation. Most often, there’s also heating after that.

If you were to just crack open a pod and eat the non-fermented seeds, you would find they are more white and taste nothing like raw powder or nibs.

Since the word raw is not legally defined or regulated, food manufacturers can market pasteurized, baked, and/or boiled foods as “raw” even when they’re not, according to the common man’s definition.

The scam of raw almonds in America is one such example.

When you dig deeper, you will find that many brands of “raw” cacao products actually admit to heating them for a short period of time, anywhere from 180 °F to 220 °F, to reduce the bitter flavor.

If you want the real deal – those kept below 118 °F during and after fermentation – then go on Amazon and buy organic nibs from Sunfood or from Navitas Organics.

Cacao nibs vs. cocoa nibs

Technically, the difference between them is that cocoa should be made with roasted beans, while cacao is either raw or made with very low temperatures.

However when it comes to nibs, both are usually in reference to the same thing.

Because cacao is a less familiar word, some brands will label their cacao nibs as cocoa nibs, even when they’re made using fermentation and low temperatures that qualify as raw.

A few brands though use it to describe something entirely different. Ghirardelli’s “Intense Dark Cocoa Nibs” bar is regular sugar-sweetened chocolate and milk fat, with a few nibs mixed in.

Difference between chocolate

Unlike cacao, chocolate is not raw or even close to it. In order to make true cocoa, which is what chocolate chips and bars are made out from, the beans are heated at high temperatures and then finely ground to make a powder or liquor.

Despite the name, there is no alcohol in chocolate liquor.

The closest thing to cacao chips will be unsweetened chocolate chips. They don’t have the added sugar and some don’t have added milk, dairy, or other flavors like vanilla. The only difference between them is that the chocolate chips were made using traditional heat-processed cocoa, unlike the nibs which use fermented beans that haven’t been ground.

Pascha unsweetened chocolate chips made with 100% cocoa

To add further confusion, some brands use the cacao term for 100% cocoa, even though it’s not raw. As with the word raw, these terms are not legally defined so there is not an “official” definition of each.

Whatever you want to call them, the only mainstream brand that sells 100% unsweetened chips is Pascha. You can find them at Whole Foods and similar stores or get them on Amazon.

Your typical dark chocolate bar will only be 50-70% cocoa, with the rest being sweeteners and dairy (or vegan equivalents). Very few brands sell 85% concentrations and above.

organic dark chocolate bars

Alter Eco and Theo sell organic dark bars that are 85% cocoa and dairy-free. Endangered Species and Chocolove Extreme have similar with 88% but they’re non-organic. Equal Exchange is organic.

Ghirardelli’s Intense Dark Midnight Reverie is 86% but if you read the ingredients, you will discover it’s more processed with a mystery “natural flavor” and milk fat.

If you’re not eating nibs, the next best thing will be dark chocolate bars or chips. The higher the percentage, the healthier it will be. As the concentration of cocoa goes up, the amount of sugar goes down.

Speaking of sugar…

There is such thing as white cacao but it’s quite rare, as it was just discovered a few years ago. Only a couple chocolatiers in the world sell it and no one makes white cacao nibs from it. They don’t exist.

Anything you see advertised as “white” really isn’t cacao. They are just chunks of white chocolate, which is actually cocoa butter (naturally white) that has been mixed with lots of sugar and a little vanilla. These products are bad for you!

Difference between carob

whole carob beans in pod
carob bean pods

They are not the same thing.

The carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua tree) is a different species than the cocoa plant (Theobroma cacao). Unlike cocoa which is not truly a bean, carob really is one, as it’s a member of the pea family, Fabaceae. Carob nibs don’t exist, as this bean doesn’t lend itself well to making those. The closest thing are unsweetened carob chips.

Since these beans are low in fat, in order to create chips from them, a great deal of processing is involved. First it is dried and ground into a powder, then things like partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil, milk powder, and soy lecithin (an emulsifier) are added. With those, the carob can become a syrup when hot. This is melted into different shapes, like chips and wafers for baking.

With a taste similar to cacao, raw carob powder and pods are naturally sweet with less fat and fewer calories by weight. Unfortunately, most products made with this plant are highly processed and loaded with dairy derivatives and unhealthy oils.

Health benefits of cacao nibs

Eating a 3 tbsp serving of nibs will provide the following:

  • More antioxidants than blueberries, goji, and broccoli
  • 8g of dietary fiber, which is 32% of DV
  • 4g of protein
  • 0g of sugar
  • 20% of the DV for magnesium
  • Source of vitamin K and E
  • Less caffeine and more theobromine than coffee
  • Promotes healthy heart and cardiovascular activity
  • Supports better cholesterol levels
  • Lower risk of lead contamination vs. cocoa powder
  • Gluten free
  • Non-GMO

Unlike milk chocolate which contains cholesterol, the nibs will be dairy-free and therefore cholesterol-free since they’re 100% plant-based.

Plus, some research suggests that regular consumption of cocoa may help lower LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and boost HDL cholesterol (the good kind). (1) (2)

Likewise for the flavonoids in cocoa which have been found to reduce blood clotting activity in some studies. For those at increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, less clotting is typically a good thing. (3) (4) (5)

theobromine molecule and chemical formulaSince this form of the plant is the least consumed, there are not published studies on how much caffeine there is in cacao nibs. Its content will be comparable to a dark chocolate, as both have a comparable percentage of fat (the caffeine is not in the fat).

3 tablespoons (30g) of dark chocolate contains 11 mg of caffeine and 150 mg of theobromine. (6)

Theobromine is an alkaloid stimulant which is estimated to only have around 1/10th the potency of caffeine, yet it offers the benefit of a more calming energy without the jitters.

It’s also one of the benefits of matcha green tea. That’s why people believe it promotes focus in a more calming manner than just caffeine alone.

In terms of total antioxidant activity, the exact ORAC value of cacao nibs hasn’t been measured. You can compare other forms though. Unsweetened cocoa powder, dark chocolate, and even milk chocolate candies test out as having higher ORAC values than blueberries and many other superfoods on an equal-weight basis.

Nutrition facts vs. powder

Here are the labels for cacao nibs and powder side by side, so you can see their similarities and differences. The brand is Sunfood Superfoods, though any equally pure supplier should measure comparably.

nutrition facts labels for cacao nibs and powder

Note that one has serving of a teaspoon while the other is a tablespoon.

Once you adjust for the difference in weight, the benefits of powder are lower calories and higher protein. That’s because very little of the butter is in that form.

The nibs have at least 15% more calories; 6.7 calories per gram for the nibs and 5.8 for the powder.

Based on the fat, calories, and protein difference, you may be inclined to think that cacao nibs are less healthy for you than the powder. Before you reach that verdict, read what comes next about lead and heavy metals…

Side effects of cacao nibs

  • Acid reflux
  • Increased risk of bleeding
  • Migraine trigger for some people
  • Irregular heartbeat (tachyarrhythmia)
  • May contain harmful heavy metals like lead and cadmium
  • Calorically-dense means weight gain can result with excess consumption
  • Caffeine content may disturb sleep, especially if consumed later in the day
  • Theobromine is a similar stimulant that stays in the body even longer
  • Allergic reactions are possible but rare
  • Unknown safety during pregnancy

Eating any form of cocoa while pregnant or breastfeeding is not guaranteed to be safe. Caffeine may be dangerous to developing babies and it’s unknown as to what similar effect theobromine may have. (7)

Many of these adverse reactions have limited data to support them. (8) (9)

For the average healthy man or women, the two dangers you are most likely to encounter are heartburn (acid reflux) and exposure of lead and cadmium. The former affects many, while the latter affects everyone.

Why is there lead in cocoa?

Manufacturers and sellers claim the lead is naturally occurring and comes from the soil. Similar to how the tea plant has a tendency of absorb fluoride, they claim that the Theobroma cacao plant does so for lead and cadmium.

That may or may not be the true cause.

There is research which suggests other sources are responsible for at least some of the heavy metals found (10):

“Because of the high capacity of cocoa bean shells to adsorb lead, contamination from leaded gasoline emissions may occur during the fermentation and sun-drying of unshelled beans at cocoa farms”

And if the plant truly is to blame, then how does one explain this finding (11):

“…most of the trace metal contaminations in these products are found after the beans are harvested, dried and shipped, namely during the manufacturing of cocoa and chocolate products”

In short, just because cocoa beans might have a propensity to absorb lead and cadmium, if they don’t come in contact with it in the first place, then they aren’t going to absorb it!

If you think the healthy and organic brands are safe, think again.

We can’t reproduce or link to the full test results because they are from Consumer Lab. We have a paid account with them and their terms prevent full reproduction of the data. Though we can summarize it and say that based on their testing of 43 different cacao and cocoa-based products, many of the worst were the expensive and organic brands.

For many high-end chocolate bars like Equal Exchange, Pascha, Green and Black’s, ConsumerLab gave them a “not approved” designation.

Some of the cheaper ones got approved, like Lindt’s 90% and Ghirardelli’s 72% dark bars. The 72% dark from Trader Joe’s passed, while their 85% failed.

Out of the 14 cacao powders tested, every single one failed due to cadmium and/or lead levels that were too high.

Trader Joe's prop 65 warning label for cacao productsAmong those 14 were high-end organic brands too, like Navitas Naturals, Dagoba, and Sunfood, as well as the cheaper brands like Trader Joe’s, Hershey’s, and Ghirardelli.

That’s why if you go to a Trader Joe’s here in California, you will see a Prop 65 warning label on the shelf, which the state requires for foods that contain compounds known to cause cancer or reproductive harm.

Worse yet, the Trader Joe’s brand are roasted, which create acrylamide and that’s another carcinogen.

The brand of powder in ConsumerLab’s testing with the most cadmium per serving was Healthworks, at 24.9 mcg per serving.

Only 3 brands of nibs were tested and compared to the average powder, their levels were much lower.

You may say “lower isn’t zero” and that’s true, but you have to remember our world is polluted and many of these contaminants are naturally found in soils in minuscule amounts. Practically any food or drink contains heavy metals, the question is not if, but how much.

A few parts per billion? Or is the concentration greater? There’s no such thing as entirely pure food.

A passing grade was given to Earth Circle Organics’ Balinese sourced nibs. They’re not a common brand that you will find at Walmart or Kroger, but you can buy them on Amazon.

No one can say for sure why powders seem to have so much more lead and cadmium content than nibs and other forms. If the contamination is coming from machinery it makes sense, because intense grinding takes place to create the powder.

Those of us here at Superfoodly do still eat the powder, though we do so in moderation.

To enjoy the health benefits, it seems prudent to diversify your intake with other sources of cacao that are potentially safer, like eating nibs.

What to do with them?

  • Sprinkle cacao nibs on oatmeal or comparable hot quinoa flakes.
  • Use them on ice cream instead of chocolate syrup.
  • Top your yogurt for a raw crunchy alternative to granola.
  • Garnish warm cakes and cookies, as they will melt just enough to stay attached.
  • Mix with dried berries and nuts to make a healthy trail mix.
  • Blend in a smoothie or protein shake.
  • Add a unique flavor to chili, mole, and pasta sauces.
  • Melt in coffee to make mocha.
  • Crunchy salad topper that surprisingly works, since they’re not sweet.

nibs on green salad
photo by Joi Ito via Flickr [CC by2.0]
The uses for cacao nibs are only limited by your imagination. Since there’s no added sugar, you can use them in savory and hearty recipes. If you want to make a dessert, that works too since they can be combined with sweeter ingredients.

What to make and do with cacao nibs are a newer culinary trend. Expect to see them continue popping up more frequently in recipes since they’re dairy free, gluten free, and have a low allergy risk.

Plus they work for almost all diets, whether vegan, paleo, ketogenic, low-FODMAP, and more.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.