Among the foods that feel good for your body, mind, and soul, chocolate ranks pretty high for most people. And if you commonly add superfoods to your diet (or you partake in psychedelics), fungi are probably up there, too. Recently, wellness practitioners and brands have jumped on modern combinations of the two; but the practice of marrying chocolate’s base ingredient, cacao, with mushrooms is centuries old.
The Western name of the cacao tree is more akin to a royal title. Theobroma cacao is based on the Greek words for “god” (theo) and “food” (broma), equalling a rough translation to “food of the gods.”
Although possessing Grecian roots, the modern scientific name is a legacy of Spanish colonialism. It derives from a rough translation of how Mesoamerican cultures referred to the plant. Ancient Aztecs believed cacao was bestowed upon them by the god Quetzalcoatl, while Mayans understood it to be a food used during human creation.
Spaniards were the first Europeans to witness reverent indigenous usage of cacao during their campaign across what we now call South America.
However, as extractive colonial capitalism is accustomed to doing, the Spanish returned to their own continent with raw cacao beans in tow. The spirituality and rituals associated with consuming theobroma led to the development of the sweetened, processed chocolate we consume today.
But in its country of origin, cacao was — and still is — widely respected as a medicinal and ceremonial plant with abundant uses.
Ancient Mayan and Aztecs frequently referenced cacao in their texts and artwork. Spanish colonizers documented the exchange of beans as currency, and archeologists have discovered cacao residue in pre-Columbian drinking vessels that are over 4,000 years old.
In their decorous preparations, Aztecs would form a cacao drink, chocolātl, from fermented and roasted beans ground with corn and chilis and repeatedly poured from heights until foam developed. It was consumed in marriage, death ceremonies, and other spiritual circumstances.
The bitter beverage was heeded as beneficial for one’s mood, an envigorating aphrodisiac, and a communion with the gods.
If there is one link that cultures the world over share, it’s a history of using medicinal mushrooms. Mushroom symbolism abounds from Greece to India and beyond.
Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica is no different. In the Aztec Nahuatl language, the psychedelic species Psilocybe mexicana is known as teonanacatl, or “flesh of the gods.” The holy epithet of this shroom species implies a relationship between cacao and mushrooms; history details an explicit connection.
For ancient or indigenous South American populations, the unified application of psilocybin mushrooms and cacao occurred in spiritualistic rituals and as traditional medicine.
In some circumstances, the two godly substances were combined into a single beverage. Other situations saw mushroom consumption followed by a cacao drink. There is a synergy between the two wherein the effects of cacao accentuate the psychoactive effects of the mushrooms.
As a “teacher plant,” cacao is often viewed as a spirit guide, especially beneficial as a companion during the effects of a mushroom trip. Indigenous practices relied on an intrinsic belief in this kinship.
These days, modern wellness practices are working towards the respectful adoption of these ancient rites, while Western science aims to create tangible, demonstrable links.
The traditional union of psychedelic mushrooms and cacao has certainly moved forward in modern times.
In the 1950s, for example, many relegated it to a dying or dead practice in Mexico until Gordon Wasson tricked his way into an indigenous ritual outside of Oaxaca. His actions introduced the sacred exercise into the psychedelic conversation of that decade and further.
Similarly, with the rise of non-psychoactive, functional mushrooms in wellness diets, a new-age pairing of the two has become common.
With that in mind, it’s important to note that not all efforts to incorporate cacao-mushroom traditions are done in respectful ways. Unfortunately, there are still many layers of appropriation within the commercialization of this ceremonial combo.
That said, there are companies and scientists out there striving to get it right with sensitivity and respect. This leaves plenty of options for both superfood enthusiasts and psychedelic believers to introduce these “god plants” into their routines.
Contemporary ways to use cacao and mushrooms together mirror ancient serving methods. By pairing the two in holistic, adaptogenic beverages like mushroom tea or coffee, blends can leverage the nutritional benefits of the two.
Despite the propensity of data-driven knowledge collection systems to overlook indigenous wisdom, native populations have long-held forms of intellectual inquiry that recognize the connection and benefit of certain foods to our bodies.
That is to say, many indigenous-held beliefs are more than the “myth” status so often assigned to them.
So, it would probably come as no surprise to an ancient Aztec that research from Western institutions has discovered something they always knew: Scientific evidence shows a supportive connection between the nutritional benefits (and increased psychoactive effects) of mushrooms, cacao, and stacking the two.
Based on anecdotal and anthropological evidence of their stacking effect, psychedelic users have been consuming mushroom chocolates for decades. In recent years, modern science has begun to offer encouraging connections as well.
Studies from the Journal of Ethnopharmacology have demonstrated that theobroma (cacao) has mild levels of compounds called MAO inhibitors (1).
MAO, or Monoamine oxidase, as it’s scientifically known, is a compound that denatures neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. In essence, MAOs are responsible for breaking down these chemicals — a few of which are known to cause feelings of happiness.
As a mild MAOI, raw cacao can theoretically maintain the bioavailability of these chemicals by rejecting the compounds that deconstruct them.
On the flip side, a study from the British Journal of Pharmacology reports that cacao contains both serotonin and the raw ingredients needed to make more of it: magnesium and tryptophan (2). It also has small concentrations of anandamide and phenylethylamine, known as the “bliss” and “love” chemicals. Most importantly, these bio-compounds are increased in raw and fermented cacao.
So, cacao can simultaneously offer you increased levels of serotonin and other goodwill chemicals while also inhibiting its breakdown. But how does this relate to psychedelic mushrooms?
Psilocybin, the psychoactive part of shrooms, has been demonstrated to increase levels of serotonin (3), as well as stimulate serotonin receptors in the brain (4).
Note: These studies have taken place on animal subjects, and more research is needed to determine the effects on humans.
In addition to proliferating serotonin and opening up its reception in our brains, pairing cacao with non-psychoactive, functional mushrooms can also be a nourishing combination.
For example, while mushrooms are respected for the antioxidative and immune-boosting effects of compounds like beta-glucan, raw cacao actually has more antioxidants than nearly any other functional food.
And cacao contains moderate levels of caffeine (a mental booster) and theobromine (a cardiovascular stimulant). Merging these two things with, say, the cognitive benefits of lion’s mane or the heart-healthy advantages of reishi mushrooms is surely a wellness routine designed by the gods (5), (6).
There are many companies out there trying to make a quick buck off ancestral traditions. Ora Ceremonial, however, resists this trend. They offer plenty of learning resources for its customers, including lessons on the impacts of cacao colonization.
With cacao sourced in regenerative methods from small farms, Ora pays above-standard prices for its raw product and puts money towards reducing deforestation in Belize, Guatemala, and Colombia.
Most importantly, the sourced cacao is ceremonial grade, meaning it derives from heirloom strains, is processed in low temperatures, and isn’t defatted. It’s monitored for even minute levels of heavy metals to make sure you’re getting a pure product.
Ora’s “Mystical Mushroom” certified organic cacao and fungi blend is packed with the full fruiting bodies of reishi, chaga, turkey tail, lion’s mane mushrooms, cordyceps, maitake, shiitake, oyster mushrooms, poria, phellinus, and tremella. Phew! A half-pound bag runs $23 USD and comes via carbon-neutral shipping.
Free from fillers, and vegan, soy- and gluten-free, you can make a ritual of this cacao mix or put it into a smoothie all the same.
While you could make your own blend of cacao powder and mushroom supplements, Forest Folk Fungi offers a ceremonial-grade cacao and reishi mushroom bar. Break it down and melt it into hot chocolate for your own ceremonial needs.
Because of the high quality of cacao used, this bar doesn’t come cheap. Fourteen ounces for $39 might not be the most budget-friendly, but considering the history of this tradition, the direct, single-origin sourced product is worth the cost.
Overall, there are many different ways to immerse yourself in the combined effects of cacao and shrooms, whether you’re interested in physical wellness or mental expansion.
However, if you choose to partake, it’s important to remember the true yore of this tradition. Westerners should acknowledge that the modern ways we engage in this ritual are separate from its ancient history. Still, that doesn’t reduce the meaning you’ll derive from experiencing this timeless pairing.