Cocoa/Cacao infographic

Cacao Summary:

Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is an Amazonian tree with highly desired seed pods containing the substance responsible for what we know today as chocolate. This herb has always been highly sought after, and in fact was so highly valued in Aztec times, the seeds were used as a form of currency. The latin name "Theobroma" actually means "food of the gods".

When using this plant as medicine, it's important to consider a few things in its preparation. Always choose cacao with the littlest amount of processing possible, and avoid anything with added sugar. 

In the past, processing involved roasting and mixing the powder into a highly bitter drink. The sweet chocolate you find commonly in many convenience stores today are not the same thing. You can find unprocessed roasted cacao powder in health food shops however, which is much better for use as a medicine and daily health tonic. 

The whole plant is medicinal for different uses. The leaves are best for cancer treatment, while the seeds (chocolate) are best for its uses involving the chemical theobromine (appetite stimulant, anti-diabetic, anti-cholesterol, stimulant) which is very similar to caffeine. The nutritional content of cacao seeds are also very impressive, containing minerals such as copper, magnesium, and iron, making this useful as a nutritional supplement as well.

Photo credit: (Hawaii Tropical Botanical garden, n.d.)

Photo credit: (Hawaii Tropical Botanical garden, n.d.)

Botanical Name:

Theobroma cacao

Family Name:


Parts Used:

Seeds (raw or processed), oil, leaves, bark

Herbal Actions:


  • Stimulant
  • Antioxidant
  • Immunomodulant
  • Anti-diabetic
  • General health tonic
  • Nutritional supplement


  • Anti-cancer
  • Antioxidant


  • Emollient
cacao powder theobroma cacao


Dried and Roasted Herb

No specific dose, but 30-100g is usually a good dose of raw cacao.

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Theobromine, found in the seeds, is commonly employed as a diuretic, by stimulating renal epithelium. It is also noted to be useful for the accumulation of fluid caused by cardiac failure, when combined with digitalis to relieve dilation [1]. Other conditions cacao is beneficial towards includes inflammation, premature skin ageing, cardiac disease prevention, impaired immune function, atherosclerosis, diabetes control and prevention, cancer support and prevention, high cholesterol, fatigue, and depression.

The oil is commonly used in cosmetics, due to its excellent emollient properties, and to prepare suppositories [1]. A good use cosmetically would be to add it to moisturisers and lotions to protect the skin from dryness.

Cocoa may provide support in weight loss programs due to its In vitro effects on the inhibition of digestive enzymes associated with carbohydrate and lipid digestion (related to polyphenol content) [10], though these effects need to be researched further In vivo.

Common Names:

  • Cocoa
  • Chocolate tree
  • Coco
  • Cacahuatl
  • Tlapalcacauatl
  • Cacauaxochitle (T. augustifolium)
  • Chocolatyl

Traditional Use:

In Aztec times, the seeds of Theobroma were used as a form of currency, and in some places in Mexico, still are to this day [1]. The Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations have been recorded to have consumed T. cacao as early as 600 BC [11], however different evidence suggest it was earlier than 1000 BC. This older suggestion is based on a sample found in Honduras on residues extracted from pottery [8]. Theobroma spp. based beverages were used in virtually all social and ritual occasions in Aztec, societies [8]. The traditional preparation method as outlined by J. S. Henderson (2007) involve the fermentation of the cacao seeds, then drying, toasting (optional), grinding, and finally mixing with water to form a suspension. The beverage was very bitter, and highly sought after by all, including the invading Europeans [8].

How T. cacao arrived in mesoamerica is highly debated to this day, as the origins of all T. cacao stem from the northern Amazonia [8]. It is possible the native range of T. cacao stretched farther past central america, or alternatlively, it may have simply been from human influence.

G. Scapagnini et al., (2014) reports that T. cacao has even been used medicinally by the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, as well as a nutritional substance [7].

Various parts of Theobroma cacao have been used and studied as medicine including the leaves, seeds, bark, flower, pulp, and cocoa butter (oil).

A liquor has been made from Theobroma cacao, by combining cocoa butter, cocoa powder, which is cleaned, fermented, dried, and roasted, and possibly then processed with an alkali (called dutching) to increase palatability. [7]. The earliest use of cacao, in mesoamerica (pre 1000 BC) is thought to be a fermented alcoholic beverage of the pulp, which may have been what then lead to the production of the cocoa beverage still used today due to byproduct of this process yielding fermented cacao seeds. It is these fermented seeds that are the primary ingredient in the non alcoholic cocoa beverage that is still used today [8].

Botanical Description:

Theobroma’s name was given to it by the famous taxonomist Linnaeus, meaning “food of the gods” ([1], while the name of the preparation of the seeds known today as chocolate, stemmed from the Aztec word chocolatyl which referred to the beverage drunk at social celebrations, and rituals [8].

A fairly attractive looking tree, Theobroma stands 3.5-5 meters tall (12-16 ft), and sports small, reddish, unscented flowers that develop into yellowy-red fruit that the plant will bear all year long [1]. As the seeds ripen they will rattle within the fruit. If separated from the capsule the seeds will quickly become infertile [1]. The oil (hot expressed from the fermented and roasted seeds), known commonly as cocoa butter due to its solid form at room temperature, is quite often used in the manufacture of all sorts of herbal and cosmetic applications.

Due to the large market for chocolate products, a huge amount of industry byproducts such as the (emptied) cocoa pod result. This pod can be used to feed livestock, however due to its high fiber, and low protein content it is less than ideal. E. B. Laconi et al., (2015), outlines a process that may break down the fibers enough to enhance the nutritional content in the husks, thus increasing its effectiveness in feeding livestock in areas with a high amount of T. cacao production [3].

Currently, the largest producer of cocoa is the Ivory coast, followed by Indonesia [3]. 

Aqueous, and ethanol extracts of the leaves, seeds, and bark have shown medicinal value, as well as the fermented, roasted and powdered seeds referred to as cocoa. The scientifically validated effects of T. cacao include antidiabetic, anti cholesterol, anti atherosclerotic, anti-depressant, anti-cancer, antihypertensive, antioxidative, anti inflammatory, stimulating, nutritive, immunomodulatory effects, as well as an anti-aging effect on the skin. This plant has many more uses not well studied scientifically but nevertheless have a long history of use, such as weight loss supportive, energy enhancing, mood enhancing, aphrodisiac, diuretic, and as a stimulating tonic for overall health.

Habitat, Ecology, Distribution:

Originally from tropical South America, however as the demand for this plant has grown substantially, it is now cultivated in many parts of the world including Africa, South America, Central America, Indonesia [5].

Harvesting, Collection, Preparation:

Theobroma cacao is grown around the world [5], usually in large plantations under the shade of other trees such as banana. The pods develop continuously but are usually picked in June and December [1]. Once the pods are picked, they are cut open and allowed to ferment so that the seeds can be separated easier [1]. Drying methods of the seeds vary, but are generally dried in the sun [1]. Once dried, the seeds are ground into a paste, mixed with sugar and starch, and some of the fat is removed to make cocoa, if the fat is retained it is referred to as chocolate [1]. Often, the seeds are also roasted before powdering, this helps to break down polyphenols associated with the bitter and astringent qualities.

To obtain the yellowish white oil, or butter from Theobroma cacao, the fermented, roasted seeds are expressed.

When using this plant as medicine, it is important to consider a few things in its preparation. The traditional method of processing the seeds involves, fermenting, and roasting, which have been shown to decrease the concentration of constituents, especially polyphenols (antioxidant) [2], but may be necessary to remove enough of the astringent, and bitter qualities of the plant which may in turn reduce compliance in patients. A few other things to consider, is what part of the plant to use. The leaves are best for cancer treatment [11], while the seeds are best for its uses involving theobromine (appetite stimulant, anti-diabetic, anti-cholesterol, stimulant), as well as its nutritional content for such minerals as copper, magnesium, and iron. For antioxidant benefit, the leaves, or un roasted or fermented seeds, may be the best choice.


The seeds contain mostly fat (40-60%), and about 2% theobromine [1]. The shells contain roughly 1% theobromine, and mucilage [1]. Theobromine, as well as caffeine (also contained in the beans of cocoa) are both methylxanthine compounds. These compounds vary in concentration on the genotype of the tree [7]. Theobromine is part of the purine class of alkaloids. This alkaloid (theobromine) has been shown to stimulate the heart muscle, relax bronchial smooth muscles, and play a role in the transmission of intracellular signals [7].

The alkaloid theobromine is similar in effects to caffeine, but has a less powerful effect on the central nervous system [1]. It does however have a pronounced action on the heart, kidneys, and muscles [1].

In T. cacao beans (seeds), the dry weight contains between 10% and 20% polyphenol content, and include 3 groups: flavan-3-ols, anthocyanins, and proanthocyanins or leukoanthocyanins [2]. The phenolic compounds found in T. cacao are considered bioactive (partly due to antioxidant effects), and potentially useful for such chronic diseases as inflammation, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disorders, as well as cancer [11].

G. Scapagnini et al., (2014) suggests the primary compounds responsible for cocoa beans various benefits are theobromine, flavonoids, and magnesium, and reports T. cacao is also a rich source of copper, potassium, and iron as well [7].

Pharmacology and Medical Research:

Anti aging effects on the skin

G Scapagnini et al., (2014) suggest that T. cacao bean products provide endogenous photoprotection, and general maintenance of skin through their anti inflammatory, and antioxidant activity [7]. They report that the antioxidant effects in particular, neutralize the oxidative stress involved with dermal deterioration and premature skin aging.


Anti anemic

T. cacao beans are a rich source of iron, as well as copper [7], which may then provide support for iron-deficient anemia. The high iron, and copper is important because of the pathology of iron deficient anemia, and due to coppers role in iron transport.



Z. Baharum et al., (2014) defines cancer as “a complex multifactorial cell disease, characterized by abnormal cellular proliferation” [11] (page 18318). The death resulting from cancer is second in the western world only to cardiovascular disease in America [4]. Z. Baharum et al., (2014) then goes on to state that “it is possible that traditional medicinal plants can serve as potential sources for developing new drugs and more effective anti-cancer agents for future therapy” (page 18318).

In a study done investigating the anticancer effects of T. cacao [11] the leaves of T cacao extract (methanol) were found to produce low toxicity towards normal cells, and high toxicity towards cancer cells, indicating cytotoxic effects on cancer cells, and potential as anti-cancer agent. these effects were reported as being the highest in the leaf extract, despite the phenol content being higher elsewhere in the plant (roots), this suggests that the phenolic compounds present in the plant, which deliver antioxidant effects, are only moderately responsible for the cytotoxic effects on cancer cells.

Other constituents discovered in the plant with known anti-cancer activity include flavonoids, tannins, triterpenes, and saponins, which were all deemed to be in highest concentrations in the leaf extract [11]. It was specifically noted in this study that the leaf extract did not contain any alkaloids, which have been given distinction as medicinally important in relation to T. cacao and have been used for hundreds of years medicinally, but are known to produce cytotoxic effects on normal cells [11]. The alkaloids are mainly present in the seeds however [1].

Due to the above mentioned studies, it may be interpreted that the leaf extract of T. cacao possesses the strongest anti-cancer activity, while also maintaining the lowest chance of toxicity from the plant.



Theobromine has been studied for its effects to increase serum HDL cholesterol (aka good cholesterol) [7]. The “oxidative modification process” describes the process by which the lipids and proteins of vessel walls, and LDL (aka bad cholesterol) is oxidized early in the disease process, leading to atherosclerosis, which is associated closely in cardiac disease [9]. Cocoa has been shown to address this process in various ways, through antioxidant support, as well as immunomodulatory effects which influence cytokines and thusly, the inflammation associated with them, effectively working against the progression of this disease process [9].



Due to T. cacao’s (seeds) effects on inhibiting tryptophan breakdown, as well as its immunomodulatory and antioxidant effects [9], it can be reasoned that T. cacao, especially its seeds, may have a positive effect on the pathology of depression through various processes.

K. Becker et al, (2013) suggests that, “cacao can be a kind of indirect oral tryptophan supplementation by inhibiting IDO activity” (page 5).



G. Oboh et al., (2014) determined that both the anti-diabetic effects produced from T. cacao bean as a functional food were produced by its 𝛼-amylase, and 𝛼-glucosidase inhibiting activities, as well as the added effect of addressing some of the side effects of synthetic diabetes drugs.

G. Scapagnini et al., suggests the antioxidant effects of cocoa components may influence insulin resistance, and reduce risk for diabetes.

Also contained in T. cacao bean is a high concentration of magnesium, which during deficiency of this mineral has been linked to metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and thus, diabetes [7].



Cocoa powder, dark chocolate, and cocoa liquor, have all been shown to suppress atherosclerosis, increase dermal blood circulation, and decrease platelet activation and adhesion through inhibition of angiotensin-I converting enzyme, and high antioxidant activity [6].

Theobromine has been shown to stimulate the heart muscle, however so it should be determined how this will effect patients on beta blocking medications.

Magnesium is also an anti-arthrytic and a hypotensive agent as well, the high concentration of this mineral in T. cacao may therefore produce some of its antihypertensive effects through the actions of this mineral [7].



G. Scapagnini et al (2014) reports cocoa beans affect inflammation by down regulating pro-inflammatory cytokines.

This may be useful when treating viral cytokine effects.



Antioxidant effects were found to be highest in the roots of T. cacao, however are also present in the leaves, and cherelle (young seed pod), but were noted to be absent from the fermented and unfermented shell, pith, and pulp, and in very low concentrations in the bark (Z. Baharum et al., 2014). It was only the cherelle extract that was noted to inhibit lipid peroxidation [11]. The phenolic compounds found in the plant were given a lot of the responsibility for the antioxidant actions, due to the known antioxidant properties of phenols, and a significant correlation in the relationship of the antioxidant qualities and phenol content discovered in various parts of the plants [6, 11]. Other constituents contained within the plant are also determined to have antioxidant activity such as flavonoids, tannins, triterpenes, and saponins [11].

G. Oboh et al (2014) showed that the beans of T. cacao also had significant antioxidant effects in rats [6]. 


General health supplement

High dietary intake of plant metabolites such as polyphenols, contained in high amounts in vegetables, fruits, tea, coffee, and cocoa, provide support against such diseases as cancer and cardiac disease through antioxidant action [9].

Cocoa also offers anti inflammatory [7], immunomodulatory [9], and nutritional support through its many constituents. These qualities produce a wide variety of effects within the body, and may provide beneficial use as a daily dietary supplement to promote general health.



T. cacao has been shown in vitro to produce immunomodulatory effects via its ability to decrease tryptophan breakdown [9]. The breakdown of tryptophan has been shown to influence immunoregulation, as well as serotonin biosynthesis [9], which also plays a role in the pathology of depression.



Traditionally, in various meso-american cultures such as Olmec, Aztec, and Maya used the cocoa beverage to fight fatigue, and to build up resistance [9].

Toxicity and Contraindications:

Due to the inhibition of tryptophan by T. cacao seeds it may be reasoned that this effect may cause a disposability issue of serotonin in the gastrointestinal tract, due to this being the location where 95% of human serotonin is synthesized and stored. Here it acts as a pancreatic messenger to modulate sensation, secretion and motility [9]. More research is needed in this area to determine how the inhibition of the degradation of tryptophan affects serotonin levels in the gut.

T. cacao has been shown in vitro to inhibit digestive enzymes associated with carbohydrate, and lipid digestion [10], therefore caution should be used with conditions related to nutrient deficiencies. More research is needed in this area in vivo to determine the actual effect on human digestion.

Allergies have been reported to various parts of T. cacao.


None listed. 


Traditionally combined with vanilla and made into the drink chocolytyl to be used as a general tonic, and aphrodisiac. 


Justin Cooke

- The Sunlight Experiment

Recent Blog Posts:


  1. A Modern Herbal | Cacao. (n.d.). Retrieved from
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  3. Erika B. Laconi and Anuraga Jayanegara. (2015). Improving Nutritional Quality of Cocoa Pod (Theobroma cacao) through Chemical and Biological Treatments for Ruminant Feeding: In vitro and In vivo Evaluation. Asian Australas. J. Anim. Sci. Vol. 28, No. 3 : 343-350
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