Deepening consumer awareness of chocolate's health benefits almost matches the intensity of the chocolate they're eating. Yet, rather than purchasing bars with higher and higher cacao content, purists are going right to the source and buying cacao nibs.
“Certainly, sales have been helped by awareness of the health benefits of chocolate and, in turn, raw chocolate,” said Zach Adelman, president of Navitas Naturals, a Novato, Calif.-based purveyor of both raw and sweetened nibs. “Every few weeks or months there's more research coming out about the antioxidants, polyphenols and other properties in dark chocolate.”
Nibs are about as authentic as one can get with cacao. They're basically shelled cacao beans that have been processed at a low temperature and coarsely ground. The resulting nuggets possess a smoky, intense flavor that are adding crunch to trail mixes, cereals and like products just now hitting the mainstream market.
“Compared with other antioxidant-rich foods, chocolate and cocoa can have more than 10 times their antioxidant power,” said Mary Choate, food and nutrition educator for the Co-op Food Stores, Hanover, N.H. “Plain cocoa nibs contain no added fat or sugar, unlike chocolate candy bars or cocoa drinks, so they are also a lower calorie way to get these beneficial effects.”
Besides antioxidants, Choate points out that processed nibs contain important minerals, including copper, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc, as well as a small bit of calcium and iron.
It seems there's a lot to like in a little nib. According to SPINS, sales of cacao products, including nibs and powder, grew almost 18% over the past year in the conventional channel, to hit $25,000. In the natural channel — where cacao is well established — sales shot up 24% over the same period to just over $1.3 million. Based on past sales activity, mainstream retailers can expect to take a bigger bite out of that volume as everyday demand grows and more products arrive on shelves.
“We're starting to see the Krogers and Safeways of the world more interested in our products,” said Adelman. “I think they're beginning to see the benefit of adding unique, indigenous foods to their stores.”
If the average chocolate-loving shopper finds raw nibs a bit too harsh on the palette, they can switch to nibs sweetened with cacao liquer and cane juice. One more option is on the horizon, too. Researchers are said to be busy extracting the nutrients from beans in hopes of creating the world's first cacao-based supplement.