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what is ceremonial cacao?


"Ceremonial-grade cacao" is a term commonly used to describe a particular quality of cacao "paste" or cacao "licor"/"liquor", actually a solid form of crushed cacao seeds which can be prepared with different ingredients to create a ceremonial beverage for ritual purposes. 

Most in the world of "ceremonial cacao" would say it must also be organic, non-GMO, fairly traded, minimal / no use of industrial processing, and many would also say it must be sourced from cacao's indigenous lands: ie the Americas; and that indigenous peoples must be at the heart, growing, harvesting and profiting.

According to the Mayan teachers I studied with, there is even more to it than this- every stage of the farming and production of the cacao requires rituals, invocations, blessings, and indigenous peoples must be at the heart of it since it is their ancestral medicine, their cultural heritage, and they are the ones who know cacao best.


Cacao is essentially the most pure, raw form of chocolate, and comes from the seeds of a tree, Theobroma cacao,  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 chocolateCacao's status as both literal and symbolic food for the gods inspired its western scientific name, "Theobroma cacao" - in ancient Greek, "theo" = god  and "broma"= food"; "cacao" came from the Mayan word "ka'kau". (this also of course gives Theobromine, a cardiac stimulant, its name - it's found almost exclusively in cacao.) 

The Maya knew about cacao's curative properties; but, as with the ceremonial value of this plant, the nutritional power was unknown in the west 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, and then heavily processed. 


When we talk about "cacao" we're talking about products made from the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree. These seeds grow in pods on the trunk of the tree (these fruit pods start life as flowers). The pods are filled with a sweet white pulp and purplish brown seeds - often called beans though technically they are seeds or nuts...In the early stages of processing, the seeds are separated from the pulp and dried in the sun - as they dry, some fermentation occurs (this brings out the chocolatety flavour). Depending on the process, there may be some light roasting of the cacao beans - this is typical of Mayan ceremonial cacao for example. They are hand-shelled to remove the papery skins, and then ground down & crushed into a liquid paste either by hand, the traditional way, or by machine. This then rehardens into a solid mass of cacao, containing both the cocoa solids and the butter. This is the cacao paste / licor, used to prepare ceremonial cacao drinks.

"Ceremonial grade" cacao is basically cacao in its form of "cacao paste/licor" (as opposed to more processed forms of cacao in which the cacao butter has been separated from the solids)... But there's more to it than that: to consider the cacao paste "ceremonial grade", and to work with it in sacred rituals, it must also be ethically sourced in a range of ways: there is nothing sacred about exploitation and harming of humans and other creatures, plants, land or waters. And within the Mayan tradition, it goes further: specific rituals and blessings and ceremonies are carried out throughout the growth and harvesting of the cacao trees, and without these the cacao paste is not considered to be truly "ceremonial" grade.

I work with cacao paste which is:
- organically cultivated: so that no humans, other creatures, people, plants, land or waters are harmed.
- ethically cultivated and harvested/farmed - fairly traded, with no slave labour (there's a terrible irony in the fact that child slavery is a particular issue in the global chocolate industry)

- cultivated/harvested by and financially profiting indigenous peoples directly. For many years, I worked with ceremonial cacao grown by indigenous communities in the Amazon: buying their cacao is a way to support an ethical, sustainable industry, rather than the cocaine, oil or logging industries many are forced to work for in order to survive.
As I have been continuing my cacao studies more recently with Mayan teachers from the Q'iche', Kaqchikel, Q'eqchi' and Tz'utujil nations in Guatemala, I began to work with Mayan-sourced cacao since these people have the deep ancestral connection to cacao as a sacred medicine, and indigenous Mayan communities in Guatemala continue to face great threats.


I first heard of plant spirit medicine ceremonies because of my longstanding interest in indigenous peoples, and my wish to somehow support their rights and freedom to continue to live in their own culture. When I embarked on the path of sharing cacao I was always clear that I needed to do so in a way which also supported indigenous peoples, since I was sharing their medicine. 

I've tried several varieties of cacao from Central and South America; for the first years of my cacao path, I was working with cacao sourced from indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon; this was in harmony with my original cacao apprenticeship training, with a teacher whose own experience was with Amazonian master plants; and the cacao itself is wonderful!

In recent times, as I have found myself more drawn to cacao's Mayan cultural heritage,  I now work with ceremonial cacao from two indigenous cacao collectives in Guatemala.
Here are 3 indigenous producers/sources of ceremonial cacao I can highly recommend: Ruk'u'x Ulew and Ka'kaw Chinimital from Guatemala, and Forever Cacao's Peruvian Ashaninka cacao. Learn more about them here.



In its purest form, besides having a subtle energetic quality which assists inner journeying, cacao is rich in nutrients; it's one of the most complex foods (as long as you consume the raw rather than heated & fermented form). 

Cacao contains the following compounds:

* 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.

* anandamide - the "bliss chemical", an endorphin produced after exercise

* phenylethylamine (PEA) - which we make naturally when we're excited, & when we fall in love; it helps us stay focused & alert.

* theobromine - a stimulant, almost unique to Theobroma cacao, theobromine is gentler than caffeine: it doesn't stir up the nervous system, it stimulates the heart & cardiovascular system. Ancient Mesoamericans were well aware of cacao's properties as a heart tonic in this respect and used it medicinally as well as ritually. (A lot of heart & blood-related rituals involved consumption of cacao.)

* caffeine - stimulates the nervous system - cacao only contains a fraction of the amount found in coffee though, so people (like me!) who find coffee too much tend to find cacao much gentler on the nervous system. 

Cacao is also high in the following nutrients:

* antioxidants (highest levels of any food - more than blueberry, acai, pomegranate, goji & red wine combined)

* 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.

* iron, manganese, & copper - all essential for healthy blood formation - and chromium, which helps balance blood sugar. * zinc & vitamin C - great for boosting the immune system  

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.

​​Curious to learn more about cacao & cacao ceremonies?

What happens in a cacao medicine ceremony?

History & Indigenous roots of cacao


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