What Exactly Is Ceremonial Cacao, & Why Are So Many People Into It Now?


Photo by Nida Kurt / Pexels

Wellness trends seem to come and go, but oftentimes, they’re rooted in ancient tradition and culture. This is certainly the case with ceremonial cacao. From Angela Scanlon to Louise O’Neill many people have incorporated it into their wellness routine. But what exactly is it? And are the claims all they’re cracked up to be?

While you may have seen comparisons, the drink is more than just a bitter hot chocolate. Cacao, cocoa and chocolate are all produced from the seed pods from the same tree called theobroma cacao. Cacao is the fruit of the plant maintained in its purest form, which means it retains all its nutrient-dense properties.

Cacao is different to cocoa as it’s produced at a lower temperature and undergoes less processing. The cacao beans are simply pressed to remove most of the cacao butter. This means that cacao has a whole host of health benefits.

Registered dietician Orla Walsh explains: “From a nutrition point of view, the less processing that occurs, the less antioxidants and plant compounds that are being lost.” As for the ceremonial variety, Orla explains: “Ceremonial cacao is cacao in its least processed state usually found as a paste or disc. Cacao ceremonies are a spiritual practice delivered that combines this cacao with meditation and other spiritual activities in a bid to get better holistic health.”

Mandelei Kuhn experienced this first hand on her travels, and was so moved by her experience, that she founded Magic Earth Cacao. “The first time I used Ceremonial cacao, I had a profound yet gentle experience of bliss, trust, calm, healing and joy. I knew the Irish community could benefit from the same experience.

“At the time, ceremonial cacao was not readily available in Ireland, and Peruvian cacao was completely nonexistent. So I travelled to the Amazon jungle in Peru to learn about ceremonial cacao, so I could bring it back to Ireland and share it with integrity. Magic Earth Cacao is 100% ‘ceremonial’ because it’s sourced from indigenous populations in Guatemala and Peru. These countries were home to the ancient civilisations who initially cultivated cacao before European colonisation resulted in the start of the commercial chocolate trade.

“Magic Earth Cacao comes directly from small family farms in these areas where it’s hand-processed to maintain the benefits of the cacao fruit in its purest form, with nothing added or removed.  In comparison, commercial cacao and chocolate are often made with cacao beans from hybrid cacao plants that are not usually grown in the land of the plant’s origin. This does not have the potency and energy of plants grown for ceremonial cacao.”

She adds that it’s becoming increasingly popular in Ireland. “Ceremonial cacao is one of nature’s most miraculous plants, and more and more people in Ireland are experiencing first-hand its transformative effects. Ceremonial-grade cacao is consumed as a warm beverage, and you’ll see an increasing number of group ceremonies in Ireland. But many people now enjoy it as a private daily ritual at home, simply by setting a personal intention and practising gratitude as they drink it.”

Photo by Victor Freitas / Pexels

She explains: “People think it’s just another fleeting woo-woo wellness fad. But for millennia, ceremonial-grade cacao has been revered for its potential to naturally enhance physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.” Mandelei adds that cacao is a nutritional powerhouse packed with over 700 health-promoting compounds. “It has an abundance of flavonoids, which offer a range of benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease and enhancing cognitive function.

Theobromine, found in cacao, supports healthy blood flow and cardiovascular function. While essential minerals like magnesium, iron, and zinc boost muscle and bone health, immune support, and energy production. The natural compounds in ceremonial cacao work harmoniously to boost overall physical vitality, making it a delectable addition to a well-rounded and healthy lifestyle.”

It’s also said to increase focus and energy as theobromine gently stimulates the nervous system, while phylathelynamine, a hormone-like compound, heightens focus, attention, goal-directed behaviour, and task completion. It reportedly decreases stress and anxiety and soothes PMS and period symptoms thanks to the magnesium.

She adds: “Last but certainly not least, ceremonial cacao possesses a remarkable superpower as a transformative tool for spiritual growth and deep connection. Throughout history, ceremonial grade cacao was revered by civilisations such as the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec people for its spiritual properties. The invention of European chocolate temporarily overshadowed the essence of ceremonial cacao.

It has now been rediscovered thanks to pioneers in the modern ceremonial cacao movement. It can be seamlessly integrated into various practices, including yoga, meditation, and journaling, offering a gateway to personal expansion and profound experiences.” While the spiritual results are difficult to measure, those who experience them rave about their powers.

When it comes to health claims and scientific back-up, dietitian Orla Walsh explains: “Cacao might help improve heart and brain health. The thing within cacao that has been researched in great detail are compounds called flavanols. Dark chocolate provides more flavonols than other types of chocolate which is why a halo has been put on its head despite providing the same calories. Flavonols are also found in red wine as well as healthier things like apples, berries and onions.”

The benefits could also be linked to the origins of the plant, as Orla explains. “The Kuna people who live off the coast of Panama pull the beans off the theobroma tree, grind them up and make a sort of healthy hot chocolate. They drink this often. Therefore, they have been studied to discover possible benefits. A lot of the benefits are thought to come down to better blood flow in the body. Any potential benefits are unlikely to come from eating chocolate but rather from eating the beans in their purest state. Hence the interest in cacao.”

From a scientific perspective, Orla explains as with all health claims: “Ultimately, will one food or even one nutrient make a huge difference to your health? No. Once a person has a well-balanced diet, that is varied and jam-packed with whole foods, only then will they find benefits by the addition of any one superfood.

“To make a claim about a food you are selling, legally, it needs to be ok’ed by the EU Commission. There’s a registrar of health claims and so far theobromine and cacao don’t register. However, you can claim that cocoa flavanols help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow.”

Though no one food on its own is a miracle solution, Orla agrees that cacao is ‘packed full of health-promoting compounds’. So if you enjoy drinking it and it makes you feel good, embrace it! And if you’re interested in trying it out, it could just be an amazing addition to your wellness routine. 

This article originally appeared in the October issue of STELLAR magazine.