Chocolate lovers, rejoice: Cacao nibs -- bits of the same cacao beans that go into candy bars and hot chocolate -- contain healthy antioxidants that can boost your health and possibly even help you live longer. Also called cocoa beans, cacao beans are technically a seed that comes from the Theobroma cacao tree. Cacao nibs are less refined than chocolate liquor or cocoa powder and thus are more nutritionally potent.
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The Power of Flavonoids
Healthwise, cacao nibs' greatest claim to fame is their flavonoid content. Flavonoids are antioxidants also found in tea, grapes and berries, and they appear to improve health by altering cell-signaling pathways, according to the Linus Pauling Institute. The institute notes that more research is needed, but some studies suggest that flavonoids might help prevent cancer as well as brain ailments such as Alzheimer's disease. Cacao nibs contain more flavonoids than prepared chocolate, and among chocolate candies, the darkest versions are the most flavonoid-rich.
A Healthier Heart
A 15-year study of elderly men published in "Archives of Internal Medicine" in 2006 found that subjects who consumed cocoa had lower blood pressure than those who did not consume cocoa. In addition, cocoa eaters were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or prematurely from any other cause. Researchers also observed that the more cocoa participants consumed, the lower their risks. Although these findings don't prove that cocoa alone was responsible for the results, they do indicate a possible relationship between cacao and heart disease, as well as one between cacao and longevity.
A Lower-Calorie Snack
Along with their potential disease-fighting power, cacao nibs may help you maintain a healthy weight if you consume them instead of chocolate candy. While 1 ounce of nibs contains about 130 calories, the same-size serving of dark chocolate or milk chocolate contains about 155 calories. The cacao nibs are also sugar-free and contain 11 grams of fiber per ounce, compared to just 2 grams of fiber in the dark chocolate and 1 gram in the milk chocolate. Fiber slows digestion to promote fullness, helping with weight management.
Too Much of a Good Thing
As healthy as cacao nibs may be, eating too many can cause side effects. Cacao contains caffeine as well as a substance called theobromine, both of which are stimulants. Therefore, eating too many cacao nibs may cause anxiety, heartburn, sleeplessness and abnormal heart rhythms, according to New York University's Langone Medical Center. Sensitivity to caffeine and theobromine varies by individual; some people may experience side effects from just one serving, while others may only experience adverse reactions with large doses.