The physical and spiritual benefits of cacao

There’s a lot that distinguishes cacao from cocoa, yet many people are fooled by the similar-sounding name and place of origin

Cacao is the natural and unprocessed seed of the Theobroma cacao tree, while cocoa is the powder left behind after the beans have been processed.
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If you were told that drinking a warm, concentrated chocolate drink could help you achieve inner awakening, guide you creatively, release pent-up negative emotions and kick-start the healing process, would you decline? Probably not. Most of us would be willing to give it a go for the taste alone, if not for the mood-enhancing benefits caused by the rush of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins triggered by the consumption of chocolate.

However, if you assumed cacao was chocolate or cocoa's older, darker sister, you're in for a bitter awakening. As it turns out, there's a lot more that distinguishes cacao from cocoa than a vowel reversal, yet many people are fooled by the similar-sounding name and place of origin. Most people who try cacao for the first time find themselves shocked with the spicy bitterness of the brown liquid that looks and smells like the ubiquitous chocolate, but tastes nothing like the bars most of us like to nibble on while dealing with emotional situations.

What is cacao?  

Cacao is the natural and unprocessed seed of the Theobroma cacao tree. Cocoa refers to the powder left behind after the beans have been winnowed and processed, and the butter removed. In layperson's terms, cacao is the more highly concentrated or natural version of chocolate. For comparison's sake, most mass-produced chocolate, even the good varieties, contain only 20 to 30 per cent cacao. The rest is milk, sugar and solids.

By contrast, the cacao used in spiritual ceremonies and for consumption by enthusiasts, is almost pure ground cacao bean mixed with cacao butter, water and maybe a few spices to temper its extreme bitterness. So here's the good news: if you can get past the shock to your system and the bout of dry-heaving that is likely to follow, cacao can help put you in a meditative state.

Using cacao as a catalyst for healing has gained popularity in the West in the past decade or so, but it has been used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes for thousands of years. Cacao was considered sacred, and the ritual of drinking it as an elixir for good health has its roots in the ancient Olmec, Mayan and Aztec traditions in Central and South America. Both cacao and chocolate are derived from Olmec and Mayan languages.

Health benefits of cacao

Even the most modern mention of cacao dates back to a letter to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1520. In the centuries since, hundreds of documents extolling the virtues of cacao have been published in English, Spanish, French, German and Latin. Healers in many cultures have traditionally used cacao to alleviate a host of mental and physical afflictions, such as depression, insomnia, nervousness and excitability, as well as regulating blood pressure and sugar levels, and preventing cardiometabolic diseases.

Science backs up many of these claims and has established that cacao is a rich source of theobromine, caffeine, iron, magnesium, tryptophan, B-complex vitamins and flavonoids. It stands to reason then, as multiple clinical trials have shown, that consuming cacao can help with anaemia (especially among vegetarians and vegans); lower the risk of cardiometabolic diseases by improving the markers for triglycerides, HDL cholesterol and fasting insulin; improve brain function and our ability to focus; and improve our mood.

New age cacao ceremonies

Cacao's health benefits aside, one of the biggest reasons for its rise in popularity is its adoption by new-age spiritual healers. In 2003, Keith Wilson, a cacao ceremony creator who lives in Guatemala, claimed to have met the "Cacao Spirit", who offered to help him understand cacao, and unlock and share its secret powers and gifts with the rest of the world. His experiments with cacao in group ceremonies with friends led to a network of people who facilitated the custom across the world, adding personalised touches along the way.

A cacao ceremony led by Lara Skadsen, a vibrational energy practitioner from Abu Dhabi, during which liquid cacao is consumed while participants share stories. Courtesy Lara Skadsen 

Cacao ceremonies now often include one or a combination of healing practices such as reiki, sound, dance, yoga and meditation. A typical ceremony involves a group of people sitting in a circle, setting intentions (what they hope to achieve and what they hope to get rid of during the exercise), drinking cacao, sharing intimate confidences without judgment, and allowing cacao to guide them to an elevated meditative state. This can last between two and six hours.

Maren Lander, a practitioner who lives in the UK, structures her cacao ceremonies around bonding exercises, guided meditations and sound healing. "Once people have set their intentions, I give them 42 grams of ceremonial cacao and encourage them to talk about what they're struggling with," she says. "The idea is to allow them to feel vulnerable, but also safe. Some of them lie down, and I guide them through meditation and sound healing. The spirit of cacao is gentle and forgiving, but also powerful."

Lara Skadsen, a vibrational energy practitioner in Abu Dhabi, says that drinking cacao "rebalances the body's energetic cells, releasing pain and stress". Dance is an important element in the cacao ceremonies organised by Skadsen and her two partners. "Dance is part of the ancient tradition," she says. "The movement allows the cacao to activate. Cacao is heart-opening, and dancing helps the joy and the love to enter a person's cells and energy field, and clear blockages from past traumas."

Consume cacao in low quantities  

In ceremonial settings, participants typically eat about 40 grams of cacao, on a relatively empty stomach. "Ideally, we recommend that participants are neither ravenously hungry, nor full," says Skadsen. "Eating a light meal a couple of hours before the ceremony will allow the cacao to activate better. Caffeine products should also be avoided for a few hours before the ceremony, since cacao has a high concentration of caffeine and can make people light-headed if they have already had too much coffee.

“The great thing about cacao is, it will automatically tell your body if you’re overdoing it. Too much will give you migraines and stomach aches,” she adds.

The great thing about cacao is, it will automatically tell your body if you're overdoing it. Too much will give you migraines and stomach aches.

"Forty-two grams every day is already a high dose, so 84g – or two ceremonial doses – will start making you feel sick."

If you're contemplating switching from coffee to cacao – as many people in Lander's experience have, once they get used to the taste – remember that large doses of cacao can lead to increased heart activity. That means people with major heart conditions shouldn't attempt it without consulting a doctor. "Pregnant women and children should also stick to about half a cup," says Lander. "And people on high doses of antidepressants could suffer heavy migraines due to the caffeine overload."

For people who do wish to consume cacao regularly, Lander recommends a daily dose of about 20g.