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Plant profile: Theobroma cacao

by Krysten Vazquez


What if I told you there was a way you could break down the barriers that you’ve built within the heartspace? That there was a magical plant that could silence the chatter of the mind and help you reconnect with your emotional body? This plant already exists and her latin name is Theobroma cacao. You read that correctly, the spirit of cacao is very much alive and considered by many Indigenous peoples to be a master plant teacher. Cacao has also had a profound impact on my life in all aspects—spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

A woman pours a cup of cacao from a large pot.
Rosa, a Mayan Tz’utujil, pours cacao in Guate.

Food of the gods

Although the origin of cacao is highly debated and will likely never be fully agreed upon, it is believed that the fruits of the sacred cacao tree originated in the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon rainforest is currently shared between eight countries (Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Guayana, Suriname, French Guayana, listed in order of largest percentage of the rainforest to smallest), so no one country can lay claim to being the home or origin of cacao.


Cacao was deemed the food of the gods by the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica– the Aztecs, the Toltecs, the Olmecs, and the Mayans. For millennia and throughout many of the countries in Central America today, cacao continues to be a ceremonial plant teacher, revered for her medicine of unconditional love, abundance, and connection. According to the Mayan cosmovision, cacao, known as kokov in the Mayan Tz’utujil language, is the feminine spirit of the plant. For the Mayans, the male spirit of cacao is called Pataxte, and is a larger, greener version of the fruit of cacao (Theobroma bicolor) which has a nuttier aroma and taste, reminiscent of roasted pistachios, in my own personal opinion.


Cacao is a fruit, and each pod of fruit can be cracked or cut open to reveal fleshy, pulp-covered seeds. On average, there are about 40 seeds per cacao pod, and about 40 cacao fruits per tree during the duration of a fruiting season. Unlike many other trees, cacao trees do not produce fruit every year. When a cacao tree is planted, it can take up to 8 years to start producing fruit, and while a tree can live as long as 200 years, only approximately 25 of those will be fruiting years. As opposed to having branches which continue to divide, with fruit hanging from the ends, cacao fruits hang directly off the trunk.


Not all cacao is created equally

The most prized cacao is known as cacao Criollo, from the word criollo, meaning to be “of the land.” There are two other dominant types of cacao, forastero and trinitario, which have slightly different taste profiles. To keep up with the supply and demand curve driven by bulk consumerism, these strains have become hybridized to produce more cacao pods at faster rates. While some people may not like to read it, the majority of what people consume today and refer to as chocolate is very different from actual cacao. Next time you’re at the grocery store I implore you to look at the ingredient list on a chocolate bar.


Two women with their eyes closed sit on a colorful blanket surrounded by intentional items.
Krysten leads a cacao ceremony with her sister.

If you’ve ever been to a cacao ceremony, you may have noticed the cacao is much more bitter than what people would normally think of as ‘chocolate.’ This simple and back-to-basics form is the way to truly experience the medicine of cacao. The deliciously bitter taste helps bring the energy from the head downwards in the body, traveling towards the heart. The gently stimulating effects of cacao allow for increased concentration, increased circulation and blood flow, as well as the release of tryptophan, a building block of serotonin—one of our mood regulating neurotransmitters. Cacao also contains phenylethylamine (PEA), an alkaloid that triggers the release of dopamine and norepinephrine, which helps contribute to feelings of euphoria. Full of antioxidants and flavonoids, fiber and proteins, a cup of ceremonial grade cacao is deliciously nutritious. The presence of minerals including magnesium, iron, manganese, zinc, potassium, and several others also allows for increased immune protection as well as relaxation in the body.


From an herbal medicine perspective, cacao is a gentle nervine and stimulant—with about 50mg of caffeine per cup. It also stimulates digestion due to the magnesium, so it makes a great ally for anyone who struggles with constipation or those in need of diuretic effects. Energetically speaking, cacao’s bitter taste profile helps to move energy downward and can initially be perceived as warming. Once the stimulant effects have worn off, it often turns out to be quite cooling for the body.


The dark side of cacao

Like all beautiful things, there is always duality, and I would be remiss without mentioning the dark side of cacao. The increased demand for chocolate products has contributed to the development of many slave plantations and child trafficking in order to find children to work on these plantations—particularly in the countries of Africa along the equator. Popular chocolate companies that use child labor and/or slave labor to produce their chocolate include Nestle, Hersheys, Mars, Godiva, Lindt, Cadbury, and Ferrero Rocher.

A colorful collection of items, including a circle of roses, lit and unlit candles, drums, and a cup of cacao.
The beautiful components of a cacao ceremony.

Single origin cacao or locally sourced cacao is always the way to go. Some great resources for ceremonial grade cacao include Mayan Tz’utujil elder Nana Marina Cruz’s Cacao Ixmucane, Cacao Laboratory, and Cacao Junajpu. There are also plenty of ethically, fair-trade sourced cacao bars out there—just make sure to look for labels like certified fair-trade or bars that note the origin of their cacao, company mission, the percentage of cacao (white chocolate literally has no cacao in it!!), minimal ingredients, and contain zero milk products. Some delicious and environmentally ethical chocolate companies include GoodNow Farms, Kallari Chocolate, Two Little Monkeys Chocolate, Amano Artisan Chocolate, Beyond Good, Alter Eco, Theo Chocolate, Green and Black’s, and Evolved Chocolate.


Cacao has been a revered and sacred beverage to the Indigenous who’ve worked with her for centuries. Contrary to popular belief, the idea of cacao ceremonies and the use of ceremonial cacao is nothing new, although it is definitely trending. To continue to be in right relationship with the natural world around us, we must unlearn what we’ve been taught by society and learn—or remember—the teachings from the Indigenous. The medicinal power of cacao will boil down to your intention as you drink the beverage in your cup. Take a moment to connect with the magic of the plant, to imagine all the labor that went into producing the chocolate bar or the drink you’re about to consume, and remember: everything is sacred and life is a ceremony.

 

Krysten is a sound healer and cacao ceremonialist who uses the voice to activate healing frequencies and bring relaxation to others facilitated by the spirit of cacao. A yoga teacher, classically trained as a Western medicine PA, and continuously a student of ancient healing modalities, she hopes to be a bridge for the Western, Eastern, and South American worlds of medicine, fusing all of their practices together to create harmony, peace, and connection while maintaining sacred reciprocity with the Earth, and acknowledging the elders who have been so generous with the sharing of their teachings. Connect at krystenholisticwellness.com or on Instagram @kryselek.




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