Cacao, or raw chocolate, is increasingly popular as both a superfood and a healing medicine used in cacao ceremonies. Features editor Victoria Earle finds out what makes cacao so much more than a bar of chocolate.

It’s Halloween in Glastonbury. I’m sitting in a circle with fifty people I’ve never met before. We’re each smudged with sage before being invited to say, in turn, what we want to surrender from our lives.

We’re each passed a warm cup, invited to hold it awhile, smell the dark liquid, and give thanks to the ancestors and spirits before we take a sip.

The taste is bitter, very bitter. The consistency is thick, not at all like the milky-sweet hot chocolate, I was expecting!

I’m only able to sip it slowly as it is so strong. It has a definite warming effect. After a while music starts playing and we’re invited to clear the space and dance. Despite my usual shyness, I don’t feel awkward at all.

As the beats play, I feel more and more relaxed until I can feel my heart getting warmer and opening up. Feelings of happiness, joy and playfulness fill me.

Everyone else seems to be feeling the love too. After some guided dancing and full-on belly laughs, we are invited to lie down and drift off with a soothing gong bath.

This was my first experience with cacao and I loved it. I felt free without being high, unguarded but still safe.

Afterwards, the feelings of contentment and happiness stayed with me for days, if not weeks, and inspired me to explore more about cacao and how it has this heart-healing effect.

Both cocoa and cacao come from the same plant. Originating from South America about 5000 years ago, cacao trees are now grown all over the world.

Cacao beans are harvested, fermented and then made into either cacao or cocoa powder. To create cocoa powder, the beans are processed at a very high temperature.

This gives cocoa its sweet taste but much of its nutritional value is lost.

To make cacao, the beans are processed at a much lower temperature, giving them their bitter taste but allowing them to retain much more of their nutritional value.

According to the website of Creative Nature Superfoods, cacao powder is known to have a higher antioxidant content than cocoa and is the purest form of chocolate you can consume, making it raw and much less processed than cocoa powder or chocolate bars.

It’s for this reason that cacao is a popular superfood, used by many health brands. One of those is Phyto Nectars, a brand that creates brain-boosting plant-based drinks.  

“Cacao has an array of benefits which is why it is so sought after,” explains co-founder Michael Isted, a phytotherapist and nutritionist.

“Firstly, it is full of flavonoids, which are a bioactive anti-oxidant that gives cacao its ability to help enhance mood, improve your cognitive function and cerebral activity, as well as increase blood flow to the brain. This effect is what gives you the feeling of a supercharged mind.”

“Cacao also can positively influence your neurotransmitters responsible for mood, empathy and love, as well as regulating brain function and promoting the feeling of happiness.”

Michael Isted, Phyto Nectars co-founder

“Cacao’s effectiveness in performing these roles is why it is such a key component in our I Am Focused Pyto Nectar.” 

Cacao’s ability to elevate feelings of love, empathy and connection means that is considered a sacred plant medicine, though not a hallucinogen like ayahuasca.

Dan Knowlson has worked with cacao since 2010, making award-winning raw chocolate goodies through his business Elements for Life, and more recently teaching workshops and holding ceremonies on the Wiltshire/Somerset border.  

“In comparison to other plant medicines, cacao is very gentle and quite subtle,” he says.

“There is not typically the deep hallucinatory experience that other plant medicines can facilitate. And through that gentle connection, it never ceases to amaze me the depth of healing, insight and transformation people can experience. That I have experienced. She’s like a big hug in a mug!”

“Cacao has a strong feminine essence, rooted in the earth and from a place of the heart. It’s both about reconnecting us to Mother Earth and reminding us to be heart-centred beings, nurturing ourselves and everything around us.” 

Dan Knowlson

In Latin America cacao has long been used in ceremonies to bring healing. In Central and South America, where it grows naturally, cacao has been embedded into society for generations going back hundreds and thousands of years. 

“Cacao is simply part of everyday life there, and whenever there is a celebration or significant event, cacao is part of them,” Dan explains.

“Births, deaths, planting seeds, harvesting crops and so on, can all involve cacao. There is no specific traditional ceremony for working with cacao, and cacao isn’t necessarily the focus of the ceremony, simply part of it.

Each community, village, and family will connect with her in their own way. There are often similarities, such as connecting with and honouring the elements and the ancestors. Gratitude is important too.”

As you may have noticed if you’re a yoga retreat devotee, cacao ceremonies are becoming more and more popular in the West and often form part of a broader workshop or event.

People combine cacao with yoga, dance, sound baths, shamanic journeying, meditation, and breathwork.

Dan attended his first cacao ceremony about ten years ago and felt the event had little ceremony or sacred space. Now he runs his own, he is passionate about the intention and attention that is brought to the ceremony.

“I would certainly hope that as part of a typical modern western cacao ceremony, there would be time taken to create a sacred space, honouring directions, elements, ancestors, recognising and offering gratitude for the heritage of the cacao and the people who have shared their knowledge and connection with cacao,” he says.

Since being on his journey, Dan has found his life feels much more integrated.

Having worked in IT and then starting a raw chocolate company with his wife Paula, his spiritual side still felt separate from his day-to-day life.

Then in the spring of 2019, he had a breakdown/breakthrough and through that, reconnected with the core meaning of his life.

“I gained the understanding that I needed to pull all the parts of my life together. After that insight, I very clearly had a tap on my right shoulder from spirit saying, “Ahem, cacao ceremonies!” A minute later I knew pretty much how my ceremonies would be. That was the catalyst to start offering regular cacao ceremonies and in 2020 the start of the pandemic was the impetus for me to share my knowledge or working with cacao in ceremonies and I created some courses.”

“Part of the magic of cacao is how she so simply takes us to our hearts and from there our experience in the world is very different. Connection to ourselves, each other and to the more than human realms becomes so much easier when we live from our heart.”

Dan Knowlson

For me, taking part in the ceremony opened my heart and allowed me to reconnect to a less guarded, more trusting and open part of myself, a part I lost over the pandemic years.

I felt I made a genuine connection with the people I met and it was wonderful to spend an evening with such warm and kindred souls. Cacao may taste bitter, but its medicine is sweet. 

To find out more about Dan’s ceremonies and training go to Cacao Mastery

To buy Dan’s raw chocolate and ceremonial cacao head over to Elements For Life


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