The cacao tree produces seeds that can be dried, dehulled, roasted and minimally processed into what is essentially raw chocolate, also called raw cacao nibs. The nibs can be used to produce different grades of commercial chocolate, and they are often used as snacks. The nibs are slightly bitter and may be sweetened with honey or used in baked goods. Cacao nibs and the dark grades of chocolate they produce may provide important benefits to your intestinal regularity, heart and blood vessels and blood sugar level.
Dietary FiberCacao may help to keep your bowel movements regular. A 1-ounce serving of raw cacao nibs contains 36 percent of the recommended daily intake of dietary fiber, or 9 grams. Adding as little as 6.6 grams of cacao fiber per day to your diet may improve your bowel habits, according to a clinical study appearing in "Nutrition and Metabolism." Subjects in this study were given cocoa powder supplemented with high-fiber cocoa bran in a semi-skimmed milk drink twice daily for two four-week periods, separated by a three-week period in which cocoa was not consumed. The frequency of bowel movements increased and feelings of constipation decreased during the periods when cocoa powder was consumed.
Cardiovascular HealthCacao products appear to be heart-healthy as well. One of the main health benefits of cacao is for the arteries in your heart and brain. Eating cacao foods such as chocolate several times per day may decrease your likelihood of having a stroke or heart attack, according to clinical studies published in the "Journal of the American College of Cardiology" and the "Journal of Internal Medicine." In both studies, the frequency of stroke and heart attack in human subjects declined with an increase in chocolate intake.
PolyphenolsMany of the health benefits, including cardiovascular benefits, of cacao products such as cacao nibs are believed to be due to compounds called polyphenols. The cacao polyphenols are made of 37 percent catechins, 4 percent anthocyanins and 58 percent proanthocyanidins. Cacao polyphenols may improve the health of your heart and brain arteries by serving as antioxidants and inhibiting blood platelets from forming a clot. If your blood cholesterol is somewhat elevated, cacao polyphenols may also lower your low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol, and raise your high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol levels.
Blood Pressure and GlucoseThe fiber and polyphenols in cacao may work together to help control your blood pressure and blood glucose levels, as suggested by a recent clinical study in "Food and Function." Blood pressure and blood glucose were lowered by a cocoa-fiber-rich product providing 12 grams of dietary fiber and 283 milligrams of polyphenols per day during the eight-week study period. At least part of the beneficial effect of cacao on your blood sugar level may be due to slowing of starch digestive enzymes by polyphenol procyanidins in your small intestine.