What Exactly Is Ceremonial Cacao? | To'ak Chocolate - image showing a tea cup containing a cacao drink. Beside it is a lit candle, incense, and a purple crystal. Everything is set on a turquoise background
History + Culture 4 min read

What Exactly Is Ceremonial Cacao?

Sharon Terenzi

8th of December 2021

Ceremonial cacao is a lot like astrology.

Some people believe in it, others don’t. In one corner of the ring, rational skepticism will lay down all the reasons why ceremonial cacao is nothing but a buzzword. In the opposite corner, elevated spirituality will defend the beverage’s ability to bring pure moments of bliss.

Here’s the real subject of contention, though: Should consumers spend money on ceremonial cacao, or should they just make regular drinking chocolate with a 100% cacao powder or bar?

The answer has many layers, points of view, and both good and bad intentions. Let’s start with the most objective facts, before diving deep into the muddy waters.

What Is Ceremonial Cacao?

Ceremonial cacao presents itself as an untempered block of chocolate. This is the result of cacao beans that have been fermented, dried, roasted, winnowed, and ground into a paste. One of the unique selling propositions of ceremonial cacao is that it’s minimally processed to retain all the possible health benefits of cacao.

Roasting is done at lower temperatures (compared to regular chocolate), while the conching and tempering stages are skipped entirely. The process stops when the cacao nibs turn into cacao mass, which is then roughly molded into a thick block.

image of a stone grinder containing cacao that has been ground into a paste

How To Prepare Ceremonial Cacao

The ceremonial beverage is prepared in a few simple steps: The block of cacao is cut into thin shavings that are mixed with water or plant-based milk into a blender. Since health and spirituality are the driving forces behind ceremonial cacao, spices (like cayenne pepper, ginger, or cardamom) and superfoods (like maca powder, spirulina, or turmeric) are usually added to the mix depending on the desired outcome (relaxation, meditation, or an energy boost). Natural sweeteners like agave, honey, and maple syrup are also welcomed additions.

Because many of these ingredients are unrefined and powdery, the consistency of ceremonial cacao will be thick, grainy, and dense. Far from the creamy decadence of European-style hot chocolate, ceremonial cacao is meant to be the pure, earthy counterpart.

The Secret Ingredient: Intention

The last ingredient for ceremonial cacao is not found in the kitchen, but is the most important of them all: the intention behind it.

Meditation, self-reflection, spiritual healing, awareness, connection, and celebration are just some of the purposes associated with the consumption of ceremonial cacao. Whether at home alone or in a group of people, the intentions behind the cacao ceremony are set ahead of time. To enhance this spiritual experience, the cacao beverage will often be accompanied by rituals and activities such as chanting, yoga, prayers, and/or silence.

a small lit candle sits atop a blue candle holder

Is Ceremonial Cacao a Scam?

Like spirituality itself, ceremonial cacao and its effects are mostly intangible and indefinable — beyond the health benefits and psychoactive compounds already associated with cacao. But the term “ceremonial grade cacao” also lacks any official definition or quality standards. This makes it especially hard for consumers to discern between companies committed to offering a good cacao product and those looking to simply profit from a popular trend.

Governmental food administrations around the world have yet to define many quality standards and criteria for chocolate, so there’s little hope that ceremonial cacao will be regulated any time soon. This lack of legal definitions leaves enough space for ceremonial cacao companies to claim pretty much anything they want.

For example, many of them declare to be using the purest, rarest, and finest cacao on the market. But if they won’t state exactly where their cacao is sourced from (like many proud craft chocolate makers do), are they really to be trusted?

Is Minimally Processed Cacao Really Better?

Companies will also claim that the supposed minimal process makes their ceremonial cacao retain more health benefits than regular cacao mass or powder. However, a simpler and gentler process doesn’t always imply increased health benefits.

The belief that it’s better to roast cacao beans at a low temperature (or skipping this process completely) may not be scientifically sound. Recent studies have shown that roasting cacao beans above 212°F (100°C) can enhance aromatic profiles and levels of flavanols like catechin, which is linked to a number of health benefits, like inhibiting oxidative stress. Roasting at these higher temperatures can also make these flavanols more bioavailable (better absorbed in your body).

Ceremonial cacao is likely better than bulk, alkalized, and highly processed cocoa powder from the supermarket. But in terms of health benefits, it doesn’t stand far from a regular 100% cacao bar or powder made by fine-flavor chocolate makers. The differences are quite subtle.

cacao powder sits in a white bowl on a brown background

The Case of Ceremonial Grade Matcha

The case of ceremonial grade cacao resembles that of ceremonial grade matcha. Savvy marketers in the tea industry made up their own definition to discern the difference between culinary matcha and ceremonial matcha. In theory, the main difference between these two types of matcha is in how they are intended to be used.

While culinary grade matcha is designed to be added to treats like lattes, baked goods, and smoothies, ceremonial grade matcha is meant to be savored on its own in a blissful moment of appreciation. But even in this case, the lines between culinary and ceremonial matcha are blurred because of the lack of official criteria. Essentially, matcha companies can make up their own rules.

However, true tea experts don’t divide between culinary and ceremonial matcha. Instead, they assess the quality of each product to determine its best use. This judgment isn’t based on feel-good claims, but on the unbiased organoleptic properties of the matcha (color, mouthfeel, flavor).

a wooden whisk sits in a pink bowl containing matcha tea

What’s the Best Ceremonial Cacao?

This same strategy should be used when assessing the quality of ceremonial cacao. Where do the cacao beans come from? Are they fine flavor? How was the cacao processed and by whom? How does the cacao taste on its own? The best ceremonial cacao should also be the highest quality cacao.

But since anyone can claim their cacao is “ceremonial grade,” consumers run the chance of paying high prices for over-hyped, less-than-desirable cacao. Instead of giving in to alluring claims from ceremonial cacao brands, your main focus should be on the quality of the cacao itself. Otherwise, you may be buying nothing more than just good intentions.