Did you know? Cacao beans have more than 300 healthy compounds!

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?

Cacao Beans and Cacso Nibs – In a Nutshell

Always Remember where you came from:

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.

  • ? Did you know? As early as 1502, the Aztecs used raw cacao beans as currency.
  • (: Fun Fact It takes five years for a cacao tree to produce its first pods.
  • Geography
    • Cacao requires a shady environment in a hot and humid climate in order to grow properly, which is why it is primarily grown in countries around the equator. Around 70% of the world’s cacao beans come from West Africa, including Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon. The remainder come from small plantations in Malaysia, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.
  • Locally and independently sourced
    • Despite the enormous popularity of chocolate, most cacao beans are grown and harvested on small, independent farms, rather than large, agroindustrial plantations. You can read more about our commitment to our farmers by reading our statement on equity and sustainability.
  • Caring for cacao
    • Cacao is a temperamental plant that requires close attention and care in order to produce high-quality cacao beans. Each cacao pod matures at its own pace and needs to be treated and harvested individually once it reaches maturity. Farmers must also closely monitor the soil and climate, as both can affect the chemical composition of the cacao beans.

Better understanding cacao

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.

  • (: Pink Perfection Most chocolate will wind up some shade of brown, which is a result of the cacao beans’ drying and roasting process; the longer a bean is sun dried and thereafter roasted, the darker its final color will be. Recently, however, the Belgian chocolate maker Barry Callebaut has found a way to make a brand-new color of chocolate – pink! – by skipping the initial drying process and retaining the fresh purple color of the cacao bean. This “ruby chocolate” is said to have an unusual fruity taste reminiscent of wild berries.
  • ? Did you know? Cacao beans can be consumed raw! They have a surprisingly rich taste and all of the superfood benefits we’ve come to associate with cacao.

There are three main types of cacao tree:

  • Criollo
    • The word criollo means “indigenous,” and this was the name imparted by the Spanish to the cacao tree cultivated by the indigenous populations of South and Central America. Criollo is truly the mother of all cacao – it’s the tree said to have been cultivated by the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, and was the only kind of cacao tree that could be found in nature, prior to its domestication by humans. While this type of cacao bean is only produced on a very small scale today, higher end chocolate manufacturers always use criollo beans either on their own or in combination with other varieties to produce chocolate.
  • Forastero
    • This is again a Spanish word, this time meaning “foreign,” for the cacao trees that originate in the upper Amazon. This is the variety of cacao that the Spanish colonists later implanted in West Africa, where they now account for nearly 80% of the world’s cacao production. Forastero beans are the most widely used type of cacao bean, though it is typically used in blends as it has a bitter, acidic flavor.
  • Trinitarios
    • Trinitarios are a cross between criollo and forastero trees, and they are native to the island of Trinidad. Originally, farmers in this area grew criollo trees, but following a devastating hurricane in the 18th century, the farmers switched to hardier forastero trees instead. Over time, this allowed for the emergence of a new variety of cacao tree – the Trinitario. Today, Trinitarios produce about 10-15% of the world’s cacao beans, which are known for being of particularly high quality.
  • Nacional
    • There is a fourth variety of cacao, called Nacional, that is extremely rare and endangered. Many thought it was extinct, but some Nacional cacao trees were re-discovered in Ecuador in 2009 and its yield is used for prestigious and high end quality chocolate bars.
  • Legendary Plantations Cacao is grown on plantations, most of them owned by small farmers. These farmers number in the millions, which means it’s impossible to name all of the plantations where cacao beans are grown and cultivated. Some, however, have been around for centuries and remain among the most well-known and legendary cacao plantations in the world.
    • Chuao plantation: Located in a remote mountain region of Venezuela, the Chuao plantation dates back to the 15th century. Chuao produces some of the finest cacao beans in the world and has become the stuff of legends – not just because of its world-class cacao, but because its remote location keeps it relatively inaccessible to the public. The Chuao plantation is only accessible by sea, and getting there means traversing the rainforest, which is only possible when weather conditions allow. The techniques used to harvest the cacao have been passed down from generation to generation, which is part of what makes Venezuelan cacao some of the best in the world.
    • Guayaquil, Ecuador: Guayaquil, Ecuador. As mentioned above, it is the home of Nacional which is considered to be very high quality and extremely rare. What is interesting about cacao beans from that part of the world is that it rises again and again despite soil challenges. As a matter of fact, the government has invested over 80 million dollars in support of the growth and harvest of Nacional cacao and it has become one of the most widely well known symbols of Ecuadorian heritage and legacy.

From beans to bar

  • (: Fun Fact Approximately 400 cacao beans are required to make a single pound of chocolate.
  • Lap of Luxury To’ak chocolate company is one of the only chocolate makers in the world to produce chocolate from the ultra-rare Nacional cacao tree. A single chocolate bar costs $300 – talk about luxurious!
  • % Let’s Talk Numbers
  • The process of transforming cacao beans into chocolate has changed quite a bit since the original fermentation process used by the Maya and the Aztecs, when the result was a bitter chocolate drink. While raw cacao beans can be eaten alone – or made into raw cacao nibs – in order to make chocolate, the beans need to undergo a multi-step process.
  • Cleaning
    • After harvesting the beans from the interior of the cacao fruit, they are put into a machine to remove any remaining bits of shell, pulp, or other “extras”, like dust or sand, that don’t belong in the final product.
  • Fermenting
    • The cleaned cacao beans are then left to ferment for five to seven days in large, wooden containers. The fermentation process is the first step in bringing out the strong cacao aroma of the beans.
  • Drying
    • Once fermented, the beans are spread into a single layer and dried under the sun for up to a week. The drying process prevents mold from growing on the beans, as they are often loaded into sacks for transport after this step in the process.
  • Roasting
    • The fermented and dried cacao beans are then placed into large cylinders to be roasted, which brings out an even stronger aroma. This process typically takes around 20-30 minutes at 250 degrees Fahrenheit, and gives the cacao beans a richer, darker color.
  • Winnowing
    • The winnowing process removes the shell from the cacao bean. The beans are crushed and lightly blown with air to remove the bits of shell. Left behind are bits of pure roasted cacao beans – these are the cacao nibs.
  • Grounding
    • Once all of the remaining bits of shell have been removed, the nibs are ground into a paste, which is called “cacao liquor”, and begin the process of becoming chocolate.

Functional Compounds
& Wellness Benefits

  • ? Did someone say Superfood? Of course, the chocolate that results from the growing and harvesting of cacao beans is a delicious treat. But the Aztecs weren’t lying when they called cacao the “food of the Gods!” Cacao is a leading superfood, which means that cacao beans are rich in health benefits for both the body and the mind. Since cacao nibs are simply crushed-up cacao beans that are a natural result of the winnowing process during chocolate production, they also offer the very same health advantages.

  • ! Cacao Beans & Cacao Nibs: They actually are almost the same
    thing and what distinguishes them is that cacao nibs are simply crushed raw cacao beans. So, now that we know what differentiates the two, let’s learn a little more about them.
  • ? Did someone say Superfood? it is almost hard to believe the amount of naturally occurring substances cacao is full of.
    It has so many that it is considered to be one of the leading superfoods on earth (“food of the gods, remember?). They are all found in their most basic form in the cacao bean itself, thus consuming it in its raw form means you get the full potential of health benefits it offers:
  • King of Antioxidants
    • One of the many health benefits of cacao beans and cacao nibs is that they are absolutely loaded with antioxidants, and especially flavonoids – more by weight than any other food, in fact. Antioxidants help protect against and repair the damage done to our bodies by molecules called free radicals, which are the result of exposure to things like pollution and processed foods. Free radicals damage our cells and cause inflammation and serious illness, including cancer and heart disease. 100 grams of cacao nibs have an ORAC value of 62,000 – that makes cacao nibs over 13 times more powerful in the fight against disease-causing free radicals than blueberries. Incorporating more antioxidants into our diets is a key way to fight against free radicals and maintain our overall health and wellness.
  • Theobromine- An Energy Pioneer
    • While many people turn to coffee for a boost of energy to help them get through the day, the high amounts of caffeine found in coffee can also have some undesirable side effects. One of the health benefits of cacao beans and cacao nibs is that they are rich in magnesium, which makes them ideal for combatting low energy and fatigue.
  • Plant-Based Nutrition
    • Cacao is a natural source of potassium and magnesium, both of which are essential nutrients that keep our bodies in peak physical shape. Potassium is one of the most important minerals in our bodies; it helps to regulate the nervous system, promotes good blood circulation, and decreases the likelihood of strokes, kidney stones, and osteoporosis. Next to potassium, magnesium is one of the most powerful minerals in the human body – it literally repairs our DNA, converts food into energy, and is essential to muscle health. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that half of people in both the US and Europe get less than the daily recommended amount of magnesium. Incorporating cacao nibs into your diet is an easy way to get your fix of both potassium and magnesium.
  • More Calcium than in Cow’s Milk
    • Believe it or not, but cacao is packed with more calcium than cow’s milk. It also increases calcium absorption, so that you can be certain you’re really reaping the innate benefits of cacao. Because of its high calcium content that is more easily absorbed by your body, cacao nibs are healthy for both teeth and bones.
  • Nature’s Antidepressant
    • Cacao beans are full of compounds that stimulate the pleasure centers of your brain. They likewise encourage the production of several hormones and other “bliss chemicals” like dopamine, serotonin, and anandamide that can induce feelings of euphoria and relaxation – this makes cacao beans and cacao nibs natural mood elevators. Similarly, cacao is also one of only two foods to contain phenethylamine (or PEA), also known as “the love drug” because it encourages the release of the same endorphins we experience when we fall in love.
  • The More, The Merrier- B Vitamins
    • 70% of cocoa is produced in the West African area. More specifically we’re referring to 4 Aafrican countries: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon

Cacao Nibs in Our Diet

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.

  • Pass the nibs, please! As we have already established, cacao nibs are simply crushed cacao beans.
  • %Let’s Talk Numbers One ounce (28g) of cacao nibs provides:
    – Calories: 175
    – Protein: 3 grams
    – Fat: 15 grams
    – Fiber: 5 grams
    – Sugar: 1 gram
    – Iron: 6% of your recommended daily intake (RDI)
    – Magnesium: 16% RDI
    – Phosphorus: 9% RDI
    – Zinc: 6% RDI
    – Manganese: 27% RDI
    – Copper: 25% RDI

and Answers

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.