There’s no doubt that cacao beans are the most famous part of the cacao fruit. That’s because they give us cacao’s most well-known product: chocolate! More recently, cacao nibs – small, crushed up bits of cacao beans – have become popular in wellness circles as more and more people discover the health benefits of cacao. But where do cacao beans and nibs actually come from, and are they really as good for you as some people claim?
Spanish conquistador Don Hernán Cortés was the first to bring raw cacao beans to Europe in the middle of the 16th century, but the true history of cacao goes back much, much further. The cacao tree is native to the region once called Mesoamerica, which we now know as Central America. The Aztecs and the Maya were the first to cultivate cacao, and they used the cacao beans primarily to make a chocolate drink that was consumed during ceremonial or ritual occasions. They called it “the drink of the Gods,” a name which persists today in the form of the genus name of the cacao tree, Theobroma.
The creation of trade routes and human migration patterns allowed for the spread of the cacao plant across South America, and eventually to the Caribbean islands. When European colonists arrived in the region, they brought cacao saplings with them to West Africa and Southeast Asia. Today, West Africa is responsible for two-thirds of the world’s cacao production, though Central and South America are still reputed for their high-quality cacao beans.
Just like there are different varieties of grape used to make wine, there are also different varieties of cacao trees that produce slightly different cacao beans, which are then used to make chocolate. Also like wine, each cacao tree is subject to a different terroir – or manner of growing – that can affect the final taste of the cacao beans and cacao nibs.
There are three main types of cacao tree:
You don’t have to eat a bar of chocolate a day to enjoy the health benefits of cacao beans (though we won’t try to stop you!). There are plenty of ways to work more cacao into your regular diet – cacao nibs are a great place to start!
Cacao nibs are suitable for just about any diet you can imagine. They’re naturally vegan, keto-friendly, and gluten and sugar-free.
The short answer is yes, cacao beans and cacao nibs are essentially the same thing! Cacao nibs are simply cacao beans that have been crushed up into smaller pieces during the winnowing step of the chocolate making process. Once the beans are winnowed, the resulting nibs are usually ground into a paste that is eventually refined and tempered into chocolate. However, the cacao nibs are perfectly edible and healthy on their own, which is why they are sometimes collected and packaged separately, and do not finish the process of becoming chocolate.
Incorporating cacao beans and cacao nibs into your regular diet is easy! There is so much more to cacao than just chocolate, and cacao nibs are a great addition to any number of recipes. You can blend cacao nibs into your morning smoothie or stir into a bowl of yogurt for a satisfying breakfast. Similarly, cacao nibs can be sprinkled into granola or simply mixed into a dried fruit and nut mixture for an easy snack. Some chefs even top grilled meats with a little pinch of cacao nibs – go ahead and try it for yourself!
Cacao nibs have a number of health benefits. Cacao is a leading superfood, and the health benefits of cacao beans are also naturally found in cacao nibs, since cacao nibs are simply dried up, crushed cacao beans. Cacao nibs are loaded with antioxidants that help fight damage caused by free radicals, as well as the essential nutrients potassium and magnesium, which help support both the nervous, cardiovascular, and muscular systems. Cacao is also a great source of theobromine, which is a natural energy-booster that is non-addictive and does not induce any negative side effects like jitters or energy crashes that might occur with excessive consumption of caffeine.
Cacao beans are the innermost part of the cacao fruit, which grows on a tree called Theobroma cacao. Each tree produces a number of cacao pods, inside of which are anywhere from 20-60 seeds – the beans – that are embedded in a white pulp. While the cacao beans are the most widely used part of the cacao pod, the entirety of the cacao pod is both edible and extremely healthy. The skin can be ground up and made into cacao flour, while the white pulp that surrounds the beans can be used to produce cacao water, juice, jelly, and ice cream.