Here in the U.S., Christmas Eve arrives and the little ones eagerly set out cookies and milk for Santa's highly anticipated annual visit. If you happen to be in Peru for Christmas, the annual tradition is known as Chocolatada, or Christmas hot chocolate.

Municipal governments, companies, and local organizations give sweet baked goods, toys, and enormous pots of hot chocolate to Peru’s rural and disadvantaged communities. Chocolate is a favorite of many people. It's definitely a favorite of mine, especially dark chocolate. And cocoa nibs are a great way to add the benefits of dark chocolate to your diet. But there may be a chocolate shortage looming. The Cocoa Association of Nigeria recently reported 5,000-6,000 tonnes of cocoa beans stuck at the port in Lagos and in warehouses across the country due to a Covid-19 lockdown.

cacao pods

Chocolate's long history

Our love affair with chocolate goes way back in time. As early as 4,000-5,000 years ago, the Aztecs had a penchant for it. They ground cocoa beans and combined the powder with other ingredients to make drinks, gruel, and porridge.

However, those chocolate drinks did not resemble the creamy hot chocolate we enjoy today. Instead, they were thick, gritty, and very bitter. The word cocoa comes from the Nahuatl dialect of the Aztec language and actually means bitter water.

The Spanish were the first to transport chocolate, and by the 17th century, cocoa beans began to arrive in European ports. The French used them to create more palatable drinks, while the English and Dutch began making sweeter chocolate in a bar form.

cocoa powder in a spoon

What are cocoa/cacao nibs?

Cocoa nibs are small pieces of crushed cacao beans with a bitter, chocolatey flavor. They're produced from the beans of the Theobroma cacao tree. After harvesting, the beans are fermented and cracked to produce small nibs.

For candy, the pieces are ground into a thick paste known as chocolate liquor and combined with cocoa butter and sugar. However, the bits of cocoa bean can also be used to add a subtle chocolate flavor and soft crunch to baked goods as well as savory dishes.

open cacao pod

Mars rules the chocolate universe

The world’s largest chocolate company is the American confectioner Mars, Incorporated, which owns some of the most famous brands in the world, including Snickers, Mars Bars, Milky Way, Twix, and M&M's. With over $18 billion in annual sales, it is the sixth largest privately-held company in America, and the largest player in the global sugar confectionery industry.

a pile of chocolate candy bars

An epidemic, climate change, and chocolate shortages

The world’s largest cocoa-producing country is Cote d’Ivoire. It borders both Liberia and Guinea, two of the nations hardest hit by an outbreak of Ebola.

Cocoa prices have climbed by more than 60% since 2011 when people started eating more chocolate than the world could produce. In turn, chocolate makers have had to raise their prices. Hershey was the first, and the others followed.

map of Africa showing the Ivory Coast

The West African cocoa belt, which stretches from Sierra Leone to southern Cameroon, is the origin of almost 70% of the world's cocoa. The industry provides a livelihood for approximately two million farmers. During the second half of the 20th century, West Africa has experienced a further drying of its climate leading to a 30% decrease in annual rainfall in the savanna and affecting the forest zone. As a result, the size of some important cocoa producing areas in the eastern forest belt of Côte d'Ivoire has shrunk. The chocolate industry itself is reported to be the driving force behind this disaster, having destroyed as much as 80% of the rainforest since 1960 in order to grow cacao trees.

Efforts to counter the growing imbalance between the amount of chocolate the world wants and the amount farmers can produce have resulted in needed innovations. An agricultural research group in Central Africa is developing trees that can produce up to seven times the amount of beans produced by traditional cacao trees. However, the increased efficiency could compromise flavor, the trade-off being lower prices.

chocolate pieces and cacao beans

Cocoa nibs and your health

1. Helps prevent premature aging

Cacao nibs have more antioxidants than many superfoods, including green tea, açaí, pomegranates, and blueberries. Antioxidants are vital to our health because they fight the damage free radicals do to our cells. Cacao nibs have approximately 4 times more antioxidants than dark chocolate.

The stress hormone cortisol causes us to retain fat. The properties in cacao nibs reduce cortisol in the bloodstream, increase fat-burning, and improve microbial activity in the gut.

2. Prompts the brain to release seratonin, the "feel-good" hormone

Nibs also contain an amino acid often referred to as the “bliss molecule” as well as phenylethylamine which triggers the release of endorphins and other "happiness chemicals" in the brain. These elevate and stabilize mood.

3. Protects the heart and cardiovascular system

little heart-shaped chocolates

Cacao nibs contain flavonoids, anti-inflammatory antioxidants that protect the heart and the arteries in your brain. Flavonoids thin the blood and prevent clots. They help prevent heart disease and stroke while lowering blood pressure and improving circulation. Cacao also contains over 700 compounds, including the complex antioxidant polyphenol, which together lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and elevate HDL (good cholesterol).

The polyphenols that protect your heart are in the same family as the antioxidants found in red wine and green tea. They protect cells from oxidation, which helps keep you feeling and looking younger.

4. Fights fat

chocolate pudding on footed crystal bowls

The cacao nib contains the natural appetite suppressant MAO, which is frequently added to weight-loss products. Naturally-occurring MAO is an enzyme that allows serotonin to continue circulating in the bloodtream at a higher rate than most other appetite suppressants. That’s good for keeping you from becoming cranky while you're losing weight.

5. Helps prevent tooth decay

The crystalline extract found in cacao nibs strengthens tooth enamel and has been reported to be even more effective at preventing cavities than fluoride.

6. Improves brain function

Various compounds found in cacao nibs increase blood flow to the brain, improving memory, reaction time, problem-solving, and attention span. Additional blood flow lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia as we age. Also, cacao nibs are high in magnesium, which is vital for mental health and a healthy, active brain. Deficiencies in magnesium have been linked to ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, and schizophrenia.

chocolate birthday cake

7. High in fiber

The amount of fiber in cacao nibs is impressive, There are 9 grams in a single one-ounce serving. Fiber stimulates the bowels and digestive enzymes. It's also important for keeping blood pressure at a healthy level and blood glucose levels stable.

8. Rich in magnesium

The magnesium found in cacao raises energy levels and reduces fatigue. Cacao is one of the highest natural sources of magnesium, which fights type II diabetes and osteoporosis while lowering blood pressure naturally. It's vital to over 300 bodily functions, including synthesizing proteins.

9. Rich in potassium

There’s even more good stuff in cocoa nibs to keep our cardiovascular system healthy. Potassium has been proven to help regulate blood pressure and lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and cancer.

With all these benefits, why not add cocoa nibs to your diet for a healthy, chocolatey treat?

pancakes with chocolate chips