Cacao is essentially the most pure, raw form of chocolate, and comes from the seeds of a tree  which is indigenous to South and Central America. The cacao tree produces large, colourful pods containing fleshy pulp and large seeds, commonly known as cacao beans because of their size, though they are really a seed or nut, and they form the basis of chocolate. Like all seeds & nuts, the cacao bean is a combination of proteins & fat - when processed these are separated into cacao powder & cacao fat ie butter (the powder & fat are both called cocoa solids on your chocolate wrapper...)

What's the difference between cocoa and cacao?
Cocoa is another name given to cacao, and tends to be used in English, and also to refer to more processed/fermented/heat-treated forms of cacao.)

Cacao is also, in its raw state, a heart-opening plant medicine, first grown in the upper Amazon of South America 5000 years ago, later used in spiritual rituals by ancient shamans in Central America, where the plant was fully domesticated 3600 years ago. Nowadays cacao is being rediscovered as an important plant medicine, in a revival by contemporary shamans & healers & spiritual practitioners around the world. Outside of its sacred ceremonial use, cacao is also one of the true superfoods, packed with nutrients; it's food for body & soul.

Cacao seeds (often called beans) are found inside the pulpy flesh of cacao pods, which grow on the cacao tree; the most recent, groundbreaking research in 2018 has discovered the roots of cacao going back to Ecuador, 5000 years ago - all the scientific evidence now points to South not Central America as the birthplace of cacao, though it soon spread across the continent & up into Central America, where humans cultivated the plant also for thousands of years. It seems that the Olmecs and Maya were not the first to grow and consume cacao after all! Although as things stand, we currently know more about their use of cacao than any earlier groups. (If you are interested I highly recommend reading this fascinating article about the latest discoveries about the origins of cacao!)


Nowadays theobroma cacao is grown in tropical regions around the world. Most commercial chocolate comes from cacao grown in West Africa, but the rare Criollo varieties from the Americas are still considered the best. (The other main varieties are Forastero,  the most widely-used, and Trinitario, which is a hybrid of Criollo & Forastero.)

The Olmec civilization of what is now Mexico were until very recently regarded as the first to discover how to work with & process the seeds of the cacao pod; although the most recent research is now pointing to Ecuador, 1400 mile south and 1500 years before the Olmecs,  as being the birthplace of cacao, currently more is known about the Mesoamerican cacao connection.


Little is actually known about the Olmecs; we know a lot more about their more famous successors, the Maya, who took cacao to the heart of their spiritual ceremonial culture; Ixcacao is the name of their cacao goddess.  Most contemporary cacao-based spirituality tends to draw inspiration from this Mayan heritage (although I think it's fair to say contemporary cacao ceremonies outside of Mesoamerica probably bear little resemblance to those ancient Mayan ceremonies, although what they and we consume is essentially the same.) At this stage we know more about  the role and use of cacao in the Mayan world than we do of ancient Ecuadorean cacao, where archaelogists are currently making  discoveries around previously unknown cultures & civilisations in the area: cacao's story is vibrant & ever-evolving...

 “The type of cacao that was first introduced to Mesoamerica, where the Maya are, was already domesticated, but domestication occurs along a continuum, and the Maya and other Mesoamericans most certainly continued to domesticate cacao varieties to suit their particular tastes. One can argue that the Maya turned the consumption of cacao into an art form.” - Dr Cameron McNeil, archaeobotanist quoted in the Guardian article

Traditionally, cacao was used to make a frothy, hotly-spiced bitter drink which they sometimes sweetened. Recognised as having great health benefits, it was the drink of high-ranking men- royalty & priests- consumed in sacred ceremonies, and the foamy, frothiness of the drink was highly valued. The Maya prized cacao so highly they used the beans as a form of currency: Mayan money literally grew on trees...

The Maya knew about cacao's curative properties; but, as with the ceremonial value of this plant, the nutritional power was forgotten for a long time, perhaps because until very recently, in most of the world, cacao was only consumed in its most processed form, after being fermented & heated, which destroys most of its nutrients. (In case you're wondering, the difference between chocolate & cocoa & cacao is: commercial chocolate is made using 
beans which have been fermented, roasted to 99-104 degrees Celcius, mixed with sugar, milk & cheap fats; and cocoa powder is made from beans which have been fermented & then roasted to 116-121 degrees Celcius...And raw cacao has been neither fermented nor roasted, and so retains its many nutrients...)


In the 1990s scientists began to research cacao's nutritional value & realised it was a very special food indeed...These days, besides being honoured as a sacred plant spirit, cacao is recognised as the greatest superfood, highly rich in a variety of nutrients: in fact it's one of the most complex foods, as long as you consume the raw rather than heated & fermented form.

Cacao has the highest levels of antioxidants of any food - more than blueberry, acai, pomegranate, goji & red wine combined; it also has high levels of magnesium (great for supporting organs such as the heart, brain & muscles which need lots of energy; magnesium helps relax muscles & is essential for nerve & muscle function (so a great complement to your yoga practice!), improves blood circulation & gut peristalsis so it's great for digestion & elimination. Cacao is also rich in iron, manganese, & copper - all essential for healthy blood formation - and chromium, which helps balance blood sugar. It's also great for boosting your immune system with high levels of zinc & vitamin C

Cacao also contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which we make naturally when we're excited - & when we fall in love; it helps us stay focused & alert; it contains anandamide, the "bliss chemical", an endorphin produced after exercise; and tryptophan, a powerful mood-enhancing amino acid, essential for the production of serotonin (the "happy hormone" - so it can work as something of a natural antidepressant.

And...cacao contains caffeine and a unique compound, theobromine, a stimulant (gentler than caffeine) found only in cacao; the combination of theobromine and caffeine is also unique to cacao.

In a typical chocolate bar, you'll be eating a highly processed remnant of what was once cacao, after a lot of fermentation, heat-treatment, and processing to separate the cacao/cocoa solids from the fat (ie cocoa butter) - the brown solids are then mixed with cheaper fats, milk and lots of sugar...It's a very diluted form of what, in its pure, raw, unprocessed form is one of the most complex & nutritious foods on the planet. In nutritional terms, comparing ceremonial-grade cacao to commercial chocolate is like comparing delicious ripe organic oranges to a bottle of orange squash.

If you're interested in the history of chocolate here's a great talk: watch More Than a Drink: Chocolate in the Pre-Colombian World" by Michael Coe here.


Cacao had been calling me for a while (I first heard about her in 2014!) and I participated in my first cacao ceremony in the early summer of 2017, in London. This was a beautiful experience and led me to train as a cacaoista the following spring, on the island of Ibiza, with Rebekah Shaman a highly experienced plant medicine shaman who has worked with various Amazonian and other plant medicines for 20 years. I am one of only a handful of people to have undertaken her apprenticeship training: a deep, intense immersion. Rebekah has been a pioneer of modern ceremonial cacao: she was one of the very first to bring ceremonial cacao to the UK several years ago, and she has created a very deep way of working with cacao based on her experience of holding traditional Amazonian ayahuasca ceremonies. She teaches a deep-rooted respect for the spirit of the plant we work in partnership with, and this is very much my way of working with cacao .


While journeying with cacao I have experienced a profound, deeply transformative spiritual and  personal connection with the spirit of the plant, Ixcacao, herself a very powerful teacher. I have deep respect for Ixcacao, continue to nurture my connection to her and am honoured to work with her gentle, loving, potent energy &  wisdom (which is generally offered very sweetly & compassionately, though she can also be very playful & blunt!)


I find that my long-term background in yoga serves me well in this work, supporting the process of shamanic spiritual exploration & accessing more intuitive states of consciousness, which I would liken to aspects of the trancelike Yoga Nidra state, and also to the shift from the manomaya kosha (the egoic, emotional, reactive "lower" mind state of our being) to the jnanamaya kosha (the "higher" mind, the more intuitive, wise level of awareness- our "buddhi" mind). On a personal level, I consider my work with cacao as an extension of my yogic/spiritual life path.

Cacao can stimulate and unblock anahata chakra, the heart chakra; as with yogic approaches to heart-opening, I believe it's vital to cultivate groundedness and inner strength so that we are not unbalanced by the powerful release of blockages we may experience. This is why styles of yoga such as Ashtanga incorporate much grouding and strengthening before the heart-opening postures are introduced; and it's why the setting and structure of a sacred ceremony are so helpful & vital for guiding participants safely into and back out of this deep journey within & beyond.   

It's also been my experience that only when we start to unblock and open up the heart can we start to access those higher, more intuitive states of consciousness - & ideally, in a loving & compassionate way...

© 2019 by Tania Rose Fox