In his remarkable study of Theobroma cacao published by Aeon Books this summer, medical herbalist Marcos Patchett delves into the ancient history of our human relationship with cacao, dissecting the pharmacological properties of chocolate and divulging the mythical and magical associations of this incredible tree.
I spoke to Marcos this month to talk about his new work.
What was your inspiration for writing The Secret Life of Chocolate?
There were a few things. One, I like chocolate! Two, there’s a book that inspired me by Jonathan Ott called The Cacahuatl Eater: Ruminations of an Unabashed Chocolate Addict.
This is one of his little books that he wrote in the 80s. I read it and I loved it. I’m also a bit of a chocoholic, and I’d already started my training as a herbalist when I read it. Ott is an ethnobotanist and he touches on the use of chocolate with magic mushrooms. He also posits that theobromine and caffeine are responsible for the main actions of chocolate, and so all of its effects are down to that. I love Jonathan Ott, I think he’s amazing, but I really disagree with him there, so I wanted to address that.
My Trojan horse is made of chocolate, basically! I'm introducing people to ideas of complementary medicine and natural product pharmacology and alternative thinking by presenting a book about chocolate, which incorporates those ideas.
I also want to challenge some things. I have an issue with one of the hangovers of Victorian science: a pharmacophilic mentality that every plant or thing can be reduced to one active constituent. And whilst there may well be one main alkaloid in a given plant, that isn’t the whole plant.
Even with something like peyote, where mescaline is responsible for 99% of the whole plant’s action, there are many more alkaloids involved. Mescaline is kind of like the motor in the vehicle. If you take this motor out and strap it on to a skateboard, then yeah, it will go really fast, but’s it’s not the whole car! I wanted to use the tools of pharmacology to pick this way of thinking apart, looking at all of the different chemicals to show that you can’t reduce these things. The more you go down this rabbit hole, the more you realise that the constituent chemicals are interacting with each other, and they are all interacting with different things in the human body.
In my own research, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the constituents of the cacao bean itself, but I’ve never really thought about what the body does with those things in creating other substances.
Yes, that’s a whole area. We have pharmacodynamics, which is the action of a drug on the body: how it works. And then there’s pharmacokinetics, which is how drugs are absorbed and distributed in the body, and this touches on things such as the action of the microbiome which is often really important. When a substance gets into your gut, often the microbes are the first things to interact with it, and they might change it significantly before it's absorbed and goes any further.
Then there is the action of your own physiology on the ingested substance. It comes into contact with the bile in the intestine before moving along a number of different pathways. The liver usually transforms drugs, sometimes neutralising them ready for excretion. In phase one liver metabolism, things are taken apart, then in phase two, they are put back together. Sometimes in this process, the process of pulling things apart in order to reconfigure them actually creates the active drugs. It depends on the substance, and when you’re dealing with plants, there are many constituents.
When you’re dealing with entheogenic, sacred plants, and I would put cacao in that category, certainly sacred, arguably entheogenic, you’re dealing with lots of substances that will interact with each other, and then will interact with the human body. It’s an obvious thing to say, but the state of the person taking a substance has as much to do with how it affects them as the substance itself. When dealing with plants, this complexity is multiplied several hundredfold.
With cacao, how might that play out in an individual? What are the factors which can influence the experiential affects?
There are the obvious generic factors which influence most drugs, like whether or not you have eaten. With cacao, a full stomach really blunts the effect, I find.
Something I explore in the book that has come up in the research is how the polyphenols, which give chocolate its characteristic brown colour, are affected by what else is being consumed with the cacao. Their absorption is increased by starches, so if you’re having them with a starchy meal, or in the Mesoamerican way of drinking them in atoles or with maize, or even with some form of sweetening like sugar, that actually increases their absorption.
Likewise if you put heavy proteins with them, for example a meal with lots of meat, or even just with the addition of milk, the proteins will bind to some of the polyphenols and will reduce their bioavailability.
Variety is significant too. Whilst some of the main pharmacologically active polyphenols in cacao are proanthocyanidins, these are absent from criollo cacao, the historically authentic Mesoamerican variety. Criollo does however contain large amounts of procyanidins, which are the downstream products of the proanthocyanidins after they’ve been broken down in the gut. And the effectiveness of this process is determined by the state of your gut flora. But one of the good things about cacao that’s been found in the research is that the polyphenols actually help to reduce the amount of bad flora in the gut, and encourage the growth of good flora.
With this constituent make up in mind, I’m thinking about the process of making raw chocolate, where so often addition cacao butter is added to the blend, changing the proportion of ingredients. How does this affect things?
That’s a really interesting question. I don’t think the addition of cacao butter affects the absorption or bioavailability of the alkaloids or polyphenols, but it does change the proportion of the constituents.
What is more of a concern to me is something that’s never been tested, but that I’ve speculated on. We know that the presence of fat in the cacao bean is about 50% in weight. To make commercial chocolate, cacao butter is first extracted, then re-added to the powder with a sweetener of choice. Now some of commercial brands do taste nice, but in this corner cutting, the issue is with extruding the fat from the bean. The natural fats protect the polyphenols from oxidation, so by removing this in the manufacturing process, the polyphenols immediately start to oxidise, reducing their potency in the body.
Raw cacao powder will have more antioxidants than processed cocoa powder, but whilst it’s being touted for its antioxidant benefits, it’s continuously losing potency having been defatted. What are your thoughts on raw cacao powder?
It’s interesting you ask, because while I’ve been waiting for a shipment of the cacao I usually use, I’ve been eating powder again for the first time in years. And even after consuming 7 - 8 tablespoons, I’m still barely noticing a thing.
In the book, I show the difference in chemical make up between raw and roasted chocolate. I’m not anti-raw, and with raw food approaches, you are definitely maximising a lot the good stuff, but I do think it’s an ideology. And like all ideologies, there are certain things about it that are probably wrong. One of these things is the belief that raw cacao is somehow more stimulating. And, like you are saying, that’s not the case in my personal experience. Nothing beats a traditionally prepared, properly roasted cacao beverage. In my experience, those are by far the most psychoactive. They affect my mood and my physiology the most.
When I looked into the chemistry I discovered that there are compounds produced both in the fermentation and roasting processes called pyrazines that are not present at all in raw chocolate. These are vasodilators and they are also neuroprotective. Fermenting and roasting also produces tons more of these compounds called diketopiperazines which have barely been investigated. We don’t know everything that they do, but they do cross the blood-brain barrier, and the ones that have been researched protect nerve cells from damage, inhibit cancer cell growth, inhibit blood sugar spikes and inhibit the formation of harmful molecules.
Do you think it’s best to drink cacao without any kind of sweetener?
I do add maple syrup because I like the flavour of it. I don’t think it matters too much. I don’t like refined sugar because it’s not good for your long-term health. Large amounts of any liquid sweetener are not good for you, but some do contain lots of phytochemicals. The polyphenols in maple syrup that have been tested have anti-carcinogenic effects. Introducing maple syrup to colon cancer cells will kill them completely. It’s a potent and concentrated plant sap. And it’s the same with honey. Many people will say that it’s just sugar. And yeah, it’s 95% sugar, but that other 5% is concentrated plant chemicals, and it’s also not historically inauthentic. The Mexica and the Maya, although they didn’t sweeten their cacao often, did sometimes, usually with honey. Mayan vases have been found labelled with their contents and one of the pots contained honey cacao. So I’m not averse to sweetening it at all. A little bit of sweetness also improves the absorption of the polyphenols, so why not! Choose a good sweetener and don’t use a lot.
And so in terms of maximising the potency of the brew, how does water temperature affect this?
Cacao was made with both hot and tepid water in Mesoamerica. The Maya used to drink their cacao hot, whilst the Mexica used to drink their cacahuatl at room temperature.
When we make a cacao beverage, the drink is simultaneously an infusion, an emulsion and a suspension. An infusion is like making a tea, an extraction into hot water. Some constituents like caffeine and the alkaloids in the cacao are extracted like this. But the aromatic compounds and the traces of anandamide and other cannabinoids are in the fat. When the cacao beans are ground, the fat liquefies and the particles are suspended in this molten fat. Then when you make a drink, those tiny ground particles float in the water - a suspension - and the fats are whipped into an emulsion. The only difference the heat makes is the speed at which an emulsion is formed. And pharmacologically, hot liquids tend to exert an affect more quickly.
And how does these stimulants differ from, say, the caffeine effect of coffee?
In the book I talk about one of the most telling bits of research relating to this. Sadly it was one of those animal torture experiments, but it compared cacao to both caffeine and to amphetamine in rats. They created a maze, shaped like a letter T, where the poor little bastard rat is put in a covered corridor, and one arm of the T is covered, and one arm is open.
The rat runs along the corridor and then can choose whether to go into the covered part or the open part. If they are afraid, they will go into the covered part. But if they are curious rats, they will go into the open arm and explore. In these trials, large, single doses of cacao increased exploratory behaviour and reduced conditioned fear. It didn’t reduce instinctual fear, which is the initial reaction (crouching and "freezing") when the cover is lifted, but once they got over the initial shock, the rats on cacao went exploring, and the rats on amphetamine and caffeine didn’t explore as much. So it’s only an animal trial, but it’s a solid bit of experimental evidence for how cacao differs from the stimulating effects of just caffeine or amphetamine. There is more going on here!
Of course this ties in with the historical use of cacao for warriors on campaign to reduce fear. And today, in the syncretic religion of Santeria, cacao is used as an agent against fear. There is also a Mesoamerican ritual magical prescription of cacao used against fear that I include in the book.
We also know that psilocybin mushrooms can reduce the fear response in the amygdala, and I’m curious about the synergy of cacao with mushrooms.
Well there is a clear rationale for that I think. We’re looking mostly at the monoamine oxidase inhibitory activity of the polyphenols in cacao. During fermentation, small amounts of beta carboline alkaloids are produced, which are MAOIs, and a couple of other trace compounds may also serve this function. They would naturally be expected to raise the level of serotonin, but also to raise the potency of any tryptamines present, for example in the consumption of mushrooms.
We also know that chocolate increases circulation and blood flow to the brain which may increase drug delivery, whilst also being neuroprotective. There is evidence from animal trials that large doses of cacao definitely increase serotonin turnover. This hasn’t yet been shown in humans, but what we have got in a human trial is evidence of an increase in the amount of the serotonin metabolite, or breakdown product called 5-HIAA in the spinal cord and the cerebrospinal fluid.
I think there’s good pharmacological evidence that cacao probably acts as a potentiator for mushrooms, and we certainly know that it was historically consumed alongside magic mushrooms. There are accounts of Mexica feasts where they would drink chocolate and consume mushrooms together. Cacao drinking was sometimes illustrated alongside mushroom consumption in the art of the period.
What I really appreciated in reading these parts of your book is that you present compelling pharmacological evidence for some of these things that the explorers amongst us have discovered experientially, or that we’ve learned anecdotally in the contemporary folklore of our psychedelic pursuits.
That was one of my main aims in writing the book. I was really triggered by Jonathan Ott saying that cacao is basically just theobromine!
And after 14 years of this work, gathering all of the scientific and historical research I could find, I still don’t feel like I understand fully what cacao is about! More direct experience is needed, as it’s impossible to describe these things on a purely intellectual level, which is why the work you are doing is so important. We need more of a direct download. We’ve already got too much up here in the head!
In contemporary ceremonial usage, cacao has a reputation as a heart-opener, as being gentle, and kind, yet reading the history and mythology you write about in the book, its ancient associations were often more varied.
In that part of the book, I ran the risk of using comparative anthropology. It’s dangerous to compare cultures when filtering the data through my own perceptions. I’ve been colonised by the education I received, and I’m using a very Western mindset of examining things pharmacologically and putting things in boxes. I can’t fully get away from that.
Similarly, there is also a tendency to romanticise things. But I do think for sure that the ancient Mesoamerican view of cacao, and now I’m speaking as a European astrologer, is almost Martial whereas the contemporary view of chocolate is very Venusian. And there’s also a crossover.
This symbolic language correlates Mars with war, with fighting, poison, stinging, biting, and hurtful or painful things. Venus corresponds with pleasurable, joyful, enjoyable, voluptuous and sensual things. They are polar.
The interesting thing about cacao in this sense is that while there are definite crossovers - I talk about deities associated with cacao as also being associated with the planetary body of Venus - cacao was used by warriors. It was an underworld plant. It had a strong association with the spirits of the ancestors and contacting those spirits through ritual. My hypothesis here is that cacao is a proto-entheogen, it is a potentiator of other entheogens. And my speculation is that the heart-opening effect of cacao would enhance the ability of diviners to feel what they call the 'lightning in the blood’. This is the intuition felt when doing a divination. Likewise, when you combine cacao with stronger entheogens like mushrooms, it potentiates them, and increases the ability to open a portal to the other world. This could be the underworld, or the celestial worlds to speak to the gods or the ancestors during ritual.
Cacao has always been associated with the heart, even now with its association with Valentine’s Day. It’s fascinating to me that we’ve ended up associating it with the heart from a completely different angle. Traditionally in Mesoamerica it was associated with the life energy of the heart, rather than romance. It was considered to be a repository of vitality.
A traditional conception is that living human blood contained the essence of the ancestors’ life force, which was bequeathed by ancestor spirits in the blood. Cacao was thought to contain that essence. You drink the stuff, and you feel more alive! One of the names of cacao literally means the life force that dwells in the heart.
The shedding of blood was thought to draw down the life force from the heavens, from the gods, which would condense here as ‘itz’, a magical fluid. Certain substances on earth would be seen to contain a lot of itz - liquids of natural origins which congealed, like resins, blood, semen, and chocolate. So there is this aspect of blood offering in the traditional usage. Was there human sacrifice in Mesoamerica? Yes! We know that from history. But that wasn’t all that they were doing. Looking at it from our point of view today, it can seem totally barbaric. But from their point of view, when the Europeans came over, the conquistadors had this concept of total war, and would be killing everyone, with no limits at all. Here were two cultures mutually appalled with each other’s belief systems!
And so where do you see the future of ceremonial cacao usage?
Its primary function is to open the heart - it can open anybody up to greater possibilities. And morally, I think that cacao is neutral. Its benevolence depends upon which possibilities you are lubricating, which desires you are turning yourself towards.
From history, cacao does seem to ally itself to, or to be appropriated by, quite hierarchical societies. That may be because the history of mankind so far has constellated itself in hierarchies, rather than because of any innate tendency of the plant. Cacao was traditionally used in ritual to enhance potential, open portals, contact ancestors, get guidance, and ultimately to make shit happen in the world. I think it was used as a magical potentiator. And that's a neutral quality.
This is my hypothesis, that cacao potentiates intention. And it will tend to facilitate the good. It’s a substance that attracts good. In Mesoamerica, chillies were used to repel bad, and cacao was used to attract good. From both pharmacological and social studies, cacao seems to improve good moods but it doesn’t make bad moods worse. But if your intentions are bad, then it depends!
I think this is similar to ayahuasca, and the way it’s been used in Brazil with the Santo Daime since the 1920s, and more recently in the west as a healing sacrament. Alongside its healing capabilities though, there is a historical use in Peru as a means of attaining more malevolent ends.
I don’t think there will be any substance in the history of humans that hasn’t been put to some nefarious use at some point. Like most things, there will be stories of abuse. Something like ayahuasca is interesting because it appears to be neutral, and supports whatever intention it’s used with. Peyote on the other hand appears to be entirely benevolent, and has never been used for malevolence as far as I know.
Cacao is mostly good, but does have this hierarchical, luxurious, good-life living side to its history. Consistently. The societies that really embraced it were theocratic in the extreme, literally building step pyramids and cutting the hearts out of captives. But they were also very functional societies. And now, rich countries consume chocolate, and poor countries grow it. I think it sustains our intentions, and helps us to make our intentions more concrete. That’s my hypothesis.