Cacao (Theobroma cacao)

Cacao Summary

Theobroma cacao is the tree that gives us chocolate. It's seeds are roasted, crushed, and mixed into water to form a thick, bitter brew. Which was traditionally used in South America as a stimulant and aphrodisiac.

Some of the chemicals contained in the seeds are closely related to caffeine. Theobromine, which is the main active constituent in cacao, is nearly identical to caffeine in fact. It has very similar effects overall to caffeine, but is a weaker mental stimulant, and a stronger broncodilator and vasodilator. This makes theobroma useful for athletic performance, as it increases the airflow to the lungs, combats high blood pressure, and provides subtle mental stimulation.

The medicinal uses of Theobroma cacao vary significantly depending on the plant part used.

theobroma cacao

+ Indications

  • Inflammation
  • Premature skin ageing
  • Cardiac disease prevention
  • Impaired immune function
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Diabetes control and prevention
  • Cancer support and prevention
  • High cholesterol
  • Fatigue
  • Depression

+ Contraindications

  • May cause insomnia if taken too late in the evenings.

Herbal Actions:


  • Anticancer
  • Antioxidant


  • Emollient


  • Stimulant
  • Antioxidant
  • Immunomodulant
  • Bronchodilator
  • Cardiotonic

What Is Cacao Used For?

Cacao is mainly used to make the delicious snack we know as chocolate. As a herb however, it is mainly used as a mild stimulant, aphrodisiac, and potent antioxidant. This is a herb not generally used to treat a particular condition, rather it is a general "health-promoting" supplemental herb. It is also useful for athletes an those travelling to high altitudes for its potent bronchodilating activities.


Traditional Uses of Cacao

+ Traditional South American Medicine

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 contradictory evidence suggests 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) involves 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's possible the native range of T. cacao stretched farther past central America, or alternatively, it may have simply been spread by humans.

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 a byproduct of this process yielding fermented cacao seeds. It's these fermented seeds that are the primary ingredient in the non-alcoholic cocoa beverage that is still used today [8].

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


Herb Details: Cacao


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

Part Used

Seeds, leaves, bark

Family Name



South America

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Constituents of Interest

  • Theobromine
  • Anthocyanins

Common Names

  • Cacao
  • Chocolate
  • Cacahuatl
  • Chocolatyl


  • Unknown


  • Unknown


  • Safe during pregnancy in small doses.


  • Bitter

Duration of Use

  • Long ter use is acceptable.

Botanical Information

Theobroma cacao's classification is not fully agreed upon by taxonomists, some of which consider it a member of the Sterculiaceae family of plants, while others classify it under the Malvaceae family. Its most common classification, Sterculiaceae comprises about 1500 species into 70 genera. Theobroma itself only has about 20 different species.

Extended 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 considerable 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 in 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, antiatherosclerotic, 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.


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 essential to consider a few things in its preparation.

The traditional method of processing the seeds involves, fermenting, and roasting, which has 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 unroasted or fermented seeds, may be the best choice.


Phamacology & Medical Researcb

+ 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.

+ Anti-Cancer

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 healthy cells, and high toxicity towards cancer cells, indicating cytotoxic effects on cancer cells, and potential as an 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].

The aforementioned research may be interpreted that the leaf extract of T. cacao possesses the most potent anti-cancer activity, while also maintaining the lowest chance of toxicity from the plant.

+ Anti-Cholesterol

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].

+ Antidepressant

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).

+ Antidiabetic

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 the 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].

+ Antihypertensive

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 affect patients on beta-blocking medications.

Magnesium is also an anti-arthritic 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].

+ Antinflammatory

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

This may be useful when treating viral cytokine effects.

+ Antioxidant

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.

+ Immunomodulatory

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.



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 potent 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 leucoanthocyanidins [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].


Clinical Applications Of Cacao:

Cacao seeds are useful as a general health tonic, athletic enhancement, and to ameliorate altitude sickness (mountain sickness).

The potent antioxidant status of the seeds give it a wide range of therapeutic effects and is a popular adjunctive treatment during cancer therapy.



Theobromine may inhibit tryptophan, but it is unknown how this chemical will affect serotonin levels in the gut and brain.

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. 



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



Justin Cooke, BHSc

The Sunlight Experiment

(Updated November 2018)


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For a list of references visit the full cacao monograph.