All about Chocolate (Cacao)

From: Nature’s Creation – Knowledge & Guidance through Healing Plants

Cacao copy

Family:  Sterculiaceae 
Botanical Name:  Theobroma cacao
Pure Indulgence – Plant of the Gods
Planet:  Venus
Element:  Fire

The Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus gave the name Theobroma, meaning “food of the gods,” to the genus from which the Cacao tree evolved.  The word Cacao (pronounced kah KOW) originates from the Mayan word “kakaw.”   The word “chocolate” may come from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, derived from “xocolatl” meaning “bitter water.”

The genus Theobroma originated in the Andes of South America thousands if not millions of years ago.  The recorded history of Cacao use began with the Olmec civilisation (1200-400 BC) in the tropical rainforests of south-central Mexico.  Cacao residue found in several jars from the archaeological site of Puerto Escondido in Oaxaca, Mexico, dated from around 1100 BC.  Puerto Escondido also has the earliest known archaeological evidence for the use and domestication of Cacao.

With the decline of the Olmec civilisation around 600 BC, the Mayan empire developed and spread over most of Central America.  Jars excavated in Belize containing residue of Cacao date back to approximately 600-400 BC.  These jars were marked with the Mayan glyph for Cacao.  The Mayan civilisation vanished around 1300 AD and their Toltec and Aztec successors began to flourish to the north in what is now Mexico, and the Incas to the south, now Ecuador and Peru.  What do these cultures have in common?  They all referred to Cacao as “food of the gods.”   It was an important luxury and held a sacred place in rituals and religious ceremonies.

Cacao has a very rich heritage and history.  According to one source, evidence indicates that the earliest use of Cacao was as an alcoholic beverage.  It was also consumed medicinally as a drink to combat fatigue.  This quality may be attributed to the plant’s theobromine content.  In pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilisations Cacao beans were the basis of a ritual and medicinal beverage called xocolatl, a bitter, spicy drink seasoned with the indigenous spices vanilla, chilli pepper and achiote (annatto).  Maize gruel as an emulsifier and wild honey as a sweetener were also added.  Mayans and Aztecs believed the beverage was of divine origin and drank it with extreme reverence.

These ancient cultures also used Cacao beans as currency.  The beans were considered so valuable that four could buy a pumpkin, ten a rabbit and a hundred a slave.

The Cacao tree was thought to be a bridge between Earth and heaven.  The Aztecs associated Cacao with the god Quetzalcoatl and with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility.  According to Aztec myth Quetzalcoatl travelled to Earth from Paradise on a beam of the morning star.  He carried with him a sacred Cacao tree to deliver to the people.  He taught them how to roast and grind the Cacao seeds and convert them into a paste to be dissolved in water and made into a drink believed to bring universal wisdom and knowledge.  However, when the gods discovered that Quetzalcoatl had shared the Cacao with mere mortals they became angry and cast him out of Paradise.  Human sacrifices dedicated to Quetzalcoatl were performed and the one to be sacrificed was offered a last meal of Cacao.

Christopher Columbus is said to be the first European to discover the Cacao bean, but it wasn’t until the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs that Cacao was imported to Europe, where it quickly became a favourite of the aristocrats.  In 1554 Hernando Cortez introduced Cacao to the Spanish court as a culinary and medicinal seed.  The first recorded commercial consignment to Europe was a shipment from Veracruz to Seville in 1585.  At that time it was still served as a beverage and not truly appreciated until sugar and milk were added to counteract the natural bitterness.  The chilli pepper and annatto were eliminated in favour of vanilla.

José de Acosta, a Spanish Jesuit missionary who lived in Peru and Mexico in the late 16th century, described Cacao as “Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste.  Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country.  The Spaniards, both men and women, that are accustomed to the country are very greedy of this Chocolate.  They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that ‘chilli’; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh.”

Cacao is an evergreen tree that grows up to 40 feet in height and is hardy only in moist, tropical climates.  The Cacao tree is still found growing wild in the hot, humid foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins where it is protected by the shade of the tropical forests.  Conditions here are perfect for the cultivation of the Cacao tree.  Most of today’s commercial Cacao production is in eastern Brazil, South America and the Ivory Coast and other African countries.  The pods, which contain 20-60 Cacao seeds (commonly called “beans”), grow directly on the trunks and larger branches.  The pods are generally harvested twice a year, and the seeds are semi-fermented and dried, then ground and roasted.

Sadly, large Cacao tree plantations have replaced much of the diverse rainforest.  However, the transformed habitat has led to lower productivity of the trees, forcing growers to look at alternative methods of cultivation.  A “cabruca” forest is one in which Cacao trees are planted in the understory of the native forest, where they flourish in the shade, rather than as a monoculture following clearcutting.  By leaving the original forest canopy intact, cabruca forests preserve much of the plant diversity.  The rainforest is the most diverse ecosystem in the world with an abundance of unique species of plants found nowhere else on the planet.

The Mayans, Aztecs and Incas were all aware of Cacao not only as a divine beverage but also for its medicinal qualities.  Science has verified that Cacao is beneficial for health.  For example, it provides significant protection to the cardiovascular system.  It contains nearly twice the antioxidants of green tea or red wine … providing more than 21 times the free radical protection of green tea.  Raw Cacao contains antioxidant polyphenols – catechin, epicatechin and gallic acid.  Epicatechin and its metabolites have been singled out as providing Cacao’s vasodilation benefits (widens blood vessels by relaxing the muscular walls and increasing blood flow), which help prevent thrombosis and hypertension.

Cacao is believed to be the richest source of magnesium of any common food.  Nearly 70 percent of the population is deficient in magnesium, one of the most important minerals in the body.  It is the number one mineral that assists and supports the cardiovascular system for healthy heart functioning and normal blood pressure.  Low magnesium levels have been found in patients who died from heart attacks.  Magnesium supplementation is as important as calcium supplementation in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.  Studies have found magnesium supplementation may help relieve tension headaches, muscle tension and associated pain and cramps.  Low magnesium has also been found in chronic migraine sufferers.

According to one information source, over 350 constituents have been found in chocolate, including theobromine, phenylethylamine and anandamide.  Theobromine, the alkaloid contained in the beans, resembles caffeine in its action, but its effect on the central nervous system is less powerful and it doesn’t disturb sleep.  The theobromine in chocolate prevents animals from eating it; they cannot process it efficiently and it causes a toxic build-up in their systems. 

Phenylethylamine is partly responsible for the “high” you get from eating chocolate, because it facilitates the release of dopamine, the “pleasure” neurotransmitter.  Anandamide, another neurotransmitter found in chocolate, is responsible for prolonging the pleasurable sensation.  The word anandamide is derived from the Sanskrit word “ananda,” meaning bliss.

Parts Used Medicinally

Seed pods

Cocoa butter extracted from the seed can be used externally to soften skin and soothe and heals burns and damaged or chapped skin.  It can also smooth skin wrinkles.

Insight (The lesson that the Cacao plant imparts)

Venus, goddess of love, is the ruling planet of Cacao.  Cacao, the food of the gods, induces and celebrates love.  The energy of Cacao is all about love … not just the love we give to our family or partner.  It is the love we express daily from within in our relationships with everything around us.

The Cacao card is the most “transparent” and important card in the deck.  It is clearly appearing to you today to bring the aspect of love to the forefront of your life.  It will help guide you into relationship with all living things.  It will open you up to joy, heal a broken heart, assist you on your spiritual inner journey and bring peace and compassion into your life. 

When visualising chocolate we automatically think about love and connect it to the heart.  However, Cacao has healing potential on another level:  It can assist in the health of the heart.  As an antioxidant, Cacao boosts the immune system and lowers stress, supporting the cardiovascular system and in turn, the heart.  Cacao also stimulates anahata (the heart chakra).  We gain strength and wisdom by activating the anahata chakra.  Therefore Cacao can be of great assistance if you are on a spiritual journey.

Embrace the notion that Cacao raises emotional energy and has the power to transport and inspire you beyond brief culinary pleasure.  Look to Cacao for support.  Feel free to indulge in chocolate, remembering moderation and balance.  But be aware that the market is flooded with chocolate full of additives, preservatives, full cream and white sugar that will counteract the healing benefits.  Look for dark organic chocolate (Cacao) with minimal ingredients and sweetened with organic raw sugar or honey, and develop a taste for pure love.  Raw organic Cacao from Peru (see the Information & Reference Guide) is available in most good health food shops.  

Use good quality pure cocoa butter on the skin as a healing lotion and as an oil for massage.

“Many saints say that Love is the first religion and all religions lead you to love. Love for one another (human brotherhood), love for all creation (non-violence) and love for one’s self.  True love is the language of the pure heart.” 

— Swami Satyananda


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