Cacao beans can be ground into nibs, a healthful chocolate alternative. (Katherine Fogden/National Museum of the American Indian)

Our blender, like many, gets a bit of a reprieve in the winter. Instead of humming countless times a day, it might secure a morning to sleep in, but it is a rare day that it isn’t fired up at all, thanks to our favorite “chocolate milkshake.” I’ve heard that success is all in a name, so although our creation is more of a smoothie (it doesn’t include ice cream, sugar or any of the items found in a traditional shake, and it is crammed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants), more of my children’s friends will venture a sip when it has “chocolate” as a first name and “milkshake” as a last.

This is true of our “chocolate chip” pancakes, banana “chocolate chip” muffins and “chocolate chip” granola bars, all of which have loads of antioxidants and are free of processed chocolate, yet deliver that heavenly chocolate taste. What’s the secret? Raw cacao nibs.

For those of you who do not yet have cacao nibs in your pantry, here is the quick sell: Nibs are essentially chopped cacao beans. Cacao beans are the main ingredient in chocolate, so they have that delicious chocolate flavor and the knack for boosting moods, without the unhealthful added sugar. Cacao nibs and powder (as opposed to the cocoa powder you might already have at home) use the name “cacao” to designate the raw, unprocessed version of the bean. These beans are a powerhouse of nutrition, as described by David Wolfe in his book “Superfoods.”

According to Wolfe, raw cacao beans are:

● Higher in antioxidants than blueberries, pomegranates, goji berries, acai berries and red wine. Antioxidants help protect us from the free radicals in our environment that cause cellular damage and age-related health problems.

● A formidable source of magnesium. Magnesium is needed for a healthy heart and brain, and for healthy muscles, bones and blood. Up to half of Americans are deficient in magnesium.

● A solid source of iron, which is essential for healthy blood.

● High in Vitamin C.

● Mood-boosting. The amino acid tryptophan found in the beans supports the production of serotonin, contributing to positive moods.

Cacao nibs, which can be found at Whole Foods, in the natural-foods section of some mainstream grocery stores and at are not as creamy as milk chocolate or sweet like sweetened chocolate; they are crunchier than chocolate chips, almost like a nut, yet they still impart that flavor we all hunger for. And they need no recipe; simply substitute them for chocolate chips in cookies, brownies and chocolate chip waffles; include them in smoothies and homemade granola; sprinkle them over oatmeal or ice cream, grind them and add them to coffee; use them in a chicken mole recipe; or eat them plain as a snack. Life with cacao nibs suddenly becomes a box of chocolates, except in this case, you know all the goodness you are getting.

All about cacao

Your kids might enjoy knowing a few fun facts about the chocolate or cacao bean:

● The Mayans and Aztecs used cacao beans as money.

● After Don Hernán Cortés brought the cacao bean to Europe, the Europeans added sugar to make the chocolate we know.

● Unlike many plants, cacao has no growing season. The beans grow all year long in Central and South America. That means no shortage of chocolate!

● Cacao flowers are pollinated by insects called midges.

● You can buy a cacao tree and grow it in your house.

Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company.

Recipe Finder Read Seidenberg’s recipe for a Chocolate Milkshake Smoothie and find other recipes using cacao nibs at