Botanical Name: Theobroma Cacao
Other names: Chocolate
Family: Sterculiacaea; Byttnerieae Tribe
Active parts: Beans, Shells, Butter, Fruit pulp.
Constituents: Proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, theobromine, tannin.
Distribution: Wild: Mexico. Grown: Tropical rainforest of the Americas, Africa and Southeast Asia.
Overview: Used for chocolate making, in rituals, for its antiseptic properties also for its mind stimulating and happy effects.
The cacao tree was cultivated in Central America some four thousand years ago. There, it was venerated as a food of the gods. Linnaeus took this fact into consideration when he named the tropical plant Theobroma cacao. Theobroma means “gods” food, and cacao is a word borrowed from the Mayan language that refers to the tree, its fruit, and the drink prepared from the fruit. The word chocolate is derived from the Aztec xocolatl, a name for the beverage. Solid chocolate appears to have been a Swiss invention.
The Aztec held cacao beans in high regard. They used them as food, stimulants, medicine, and even currency (especially for paying prostitutes). They were revered as a food of the gods. The psychoactive effects of cacao were described in the Aztec-language texts of Bernardino de Sahagun.
The conquistador Hernàn Cortés brought the first cacao beans to Europe, where they were initially used almost exclusively in the production of love drinks. The first book about cacao, titled Libro en el cual se trata del chocolate, was published in New Spain (Mexico) in 1609. In 1639, a book appeared in Europe in which it was claimed that the sea god Neptune had brought chocolate from the New World to Europe. Today, cocoa for drinking and the various kinds of chocolate are among the most commonly consumed foods and/or agents of pleasure in the world.
In the 17th and 18th century, a succolade made from powdered cacao beans, sugar, and wine was drunk in Germany, sometimes heavily fortified with cardamom and saffron. At the beginning of the 20th century, invigorating drinks made of cacao and Catha Edulis were made on London and sold as Catha-cocoa Milk. Preparations of cacao and cola or coffea Arabica are now popular.
The Indians prepared a cacao mixture from roasted and ground cacao beans, cornmeal, honey, vanilla, allspice and chili pods. In former times, a variety of spices usually were added to the cocoa as well. One important ingredient in the traditional Indian preparation was the cacao flowers, which came from Quararibea funebris and not Theobroma cacao. Today, the cacao drink prepared with Quararibea flowers is called tejate. Generally speaking, cacao appears to have served an important function as a vehicle for administering other psychoactive plants and fungi.
Numerous archaeological finds demonstrate that the ritual use of cacao, as an offering, incense, or inebriant, must be very ancient in Mesoamerica. Among the prehistoric Toltecs, a cacao branch was placed in the hand of every person who made a public smoke offering to the gods as a sign of his religious respect.
The Aztecs viewed the cacao tree as a gift from their peace-loving god Quetzalcoatl. They ingested cacao or chocolate together with entheogenic mushrooms in associated rituals, a practice that is still found among numerous tribes today.
The Yucatec Maya venerate a black god named Ek Chuah as the cacao god. Cacao farmers held a festival in honor during the month of Muan in the old Mayan calendar. During travel, incense (probably cacao and copal) was offered to effect a safe return. Ek Chuah was frequently depicted on incense vessels. The glyph of the god’s name was a free-floating eye. The Maya and Lacandon use freshly whipped cacao as a ritual additive to Balche.
The shamans of the Cuna Indians of Panama also use cacao beans as ritual incense. The healers use it in their diagnoses. First, a clay incense vessel with two handles on it sides is filled with glowing charcoal. The shaman then scatters cacao beans onto the charcoal and peers into the ascending smoke. The shaman reads the patient’s illness in the behavior and structure of the smoke. Cacao beans are burned as incense at almost every Cuna ritual occasion and tribal ceremony. The cacao smoke also finds medicinal use. The beans are mixed with chili pods and then burned; this pungent smoke is said to promote healing for all types of fever diseases, including malaria.
In ancient America, cacao was esteemed as a tonic and aphrodisiac. In Indian folk medicine, cacao is drunk to treat diarrhea and scorpion stings. Cuna women drink a decoction of the fruit pulp as a pregnancy tonic. Listless children are given a tea made from the leaves, and fresh, young leaves are applied externally as an antiseptic agent. In Peru, cacao is drunk primarily as a diuretic and in cases of kidney infections.
In homeopathy, the mother tincture obtained by macerating the roasted seeds occasionally finds use.
The debate as to whether chocolate is harmful or beneficial to health continues today. A recently published book written by a physician argues that chocolate is very healthful for people. (Montignac)
Cacao beans contain 18% protein, 56% lipids, 13,5% carbohydrates, 1,45% theobromine, and 5% tannin. Also present is theophylline, B-phenethylamine, tyramine, tryptamine, phenethylamine, serotonin and catechin tanning agents. Dried and roasted cocoa shells can contain up to 0,02% caffeine and 0,4 to 1,3% theobromine.
The leaves also contain the methylxanthines theobromine and caffeine. The concentrations vary depending upon the source but typically comprise less than 1% of the dry weight. They also contain chlorogenic acid and rutoside. It has recently been discovered that cacao also contains anandamines.