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Health benefits of cacao backed by science (and popular culture)

Science is finally realising what the ancient cultures from Meso- and Central America have known for, well, a really long time. That Theobroma cacao, or simply cacao, is indeed the food of the gods. In fact cacao beans played a central role in Olmec and Mayan civilisations regarding birth, marital, burial and even sacrificial ceremonies.

Where it all began...

The sacredness of cacao got shaken up a little following Aztec domination of the Maya in 1200AD, and cacao then became more synonymous with its invigorating and stimulating effects and was very highly regarded by Emperor Montezuma. It is believed that this military leader consumed dozens of cups a day. He also believed it to bring him success with the, a-hem, ladies as well. Strangely enough, the lady folk were apparently not allowed to consume cacao. Just think, he could have been even more successful if they were allowed!

So, what’s the magic ingredient?

Cacao is a complete power source and contains many bioactive ingredients. Cacao boasts high levels of powerful polyphenolic antioxidants including catechin and epicatechin; a suite of essential minerals such as magnesium, copper, zinc and iron; vitamins B1, B2, B3, C and E; healthy fats such as oleic acid (40-50%) and mood boosting chemicals (serotonin, anandamide, tryptophan and more) which stimulate the production of our beloved endorphins.

Another one of the main active ingredients is theobromine which acts as a central nervous stimulant. Structurally it is very similar to caffeine –but unlike caffeine which causes an energy spike and crash effect, theobromine builds that feeling more slowly and sustainably. Caffeine is still present in cacao but to a lesser degree – this also adds to the diuretic effect of cacao (and the need to keep up water intake when drinking it).

Cacao for heart health

Today, there are many claims about the benefits of pure, raw cacao on our health and I encourage you read up on them if you feel called. Scientific interest in cacao has continued over the years which I have attempted to summarise here. Of particular interest is its association with cardiovascular health due to its antioxidant content and anti-inflammatory properties. It is also said to keep our blood vessels healthy due to a vasodilation mechanism. This in turn reduces our blood pressure and is an added bonus to healthy brain functioning as well. Furthermore, a few additional studies suggest cacao inhibits the growth of cancerous cells but really, more research needs to be done in this area before such claims can be justified.

A word on clinical trials

Due to varietal differences of cacao as well as geographical influences in production conditions and postharvest techniques, it remains to be consistently seen how effective cacao is in clinical trials. However, there is a lot of evidence today to suggest it promotes general health and well-being.

More than ever, we are seeing the use of cacao for its mood enhancing qualities and support for spiritual work. Drinking a ceremonial grade dose of cacao, around 30-40 mg, creates an uplifting experience and gives us the feeling that are hearts are softening, opening and expanding – we tune into the energy flowing more freely through our heart centre, connecting to it’s wisdom. A more ritualistic dose of around 10-20 grams serves as a wonderful tool for meditation, receiving inspiration and getting creative as well.

Unlocking the Mystery of Cacao

Ceremonial cacao is very different to ordinary cacao or cocoa you buy from the store – it is single origin, ultra-pure grade with super minimal processing which, like wine, differs invariably from one source to the other. You can get a feel-good buzz after a cup of this liquid gold, but it is not a psychedelic. Perhaps psychoactive is a better description as it has an altering effect on our mental and emotional state. However, the magic is in the intention behind it. Meaning it is grown with intention, processed with intention, prepared with intention and drank with intention. We sow a seed and wait for it to grow.

The cacao I use for personal and ceremonial use is ethically sourced from Ecuador. It is an old heirloom variety called Arriba nacionale, and accounts for less than 5% of the worlds cacao production. You can read more about my great supplier at Cacao Laboratory Europe. Anyway, our perception of ‘taste’ is subjective, but the Arriba variety comes highly regarded as one of the finest qualities in the world. I can also attest to this! I drink it daily first thing in the morning. In fact, cacao in general, works best on an empty stomach.

There are also some contraindications to be aware of as well – it is generally advised against people taking certain types of heart medication or antidepressants – check with your doctor if you are not sure. Also, if you have a bub in the tum or are breastfeeding or even plain old sensitive to caffeine for example, then you may wish take a smaller dose or avoid it altogether. I have had feedback from evening ceremonies that getting to sleep was hard afterwards (but the dreams were oh so good!), but this is not the case for everyone. I like to always have non-caffeinated tea available during ceremonies if someone is suddenly not comfortable about consuming it.

Bringing Community Together

Aside from the scientific health benefits, I love cacao and what it brings to my life as my morning ritual drink, but most of all, I love how the spirit of Mama Cacao brings people together. The magic is when we pair its consumption with sound healing, breathwork, singing, dancing, shaking, yoga, meditation and so on. This alone is enough of a health benefit for me, anything else, is a bonus!

What are your thoughts on cacao?


Heidi Rasikari has a PhD in plant science and is an avid cacao lover. Read more About | Heidi Rasikari

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