These days, you hear so much about the health benefits of chocolate–dark chocolate that is. Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidant compounds called flavanols that, among other things, help keep inflammation in check. In addition, research links eating dark chocolate regularly with a lower risk for heart disease and a reduction in blood pressure. Who wouldn’t want those things?
Drinking a cup of hot chocolate or hot cocoa might sound like a luscious way to get your flavanols, but if you buy hot chocolate from a coffee shop you’re probably NOT getting health benefits. Instead, you’re getting a high-calorie, high sugar concoction that’s more likely to thicken your waistline than prevent a heart attack or lower your blood pressure. Fortunately, it’s not hard to make your own heart-healthy cup of hot chocolate at home you can enjoy by the fire without a twinge of guilt.
Why Hot Chocolate from a Coffee Shop Doesn’t Offer the Same Health Benefits
When you buy a cup of hot chocolate or hot cocoa at a coffee shop or at a restaurant, it can’t compete with what you make at home. There’s the obvious stuff like most coffee shop versions come with too much sugar and too many calories, but those aren’t the only reasons. Even if you order a hot cocoa made with cocoa powder and no added sugar, there’s a good chance the cocoa powder they’re using is Dutch processed, a type of processing that destroys most of the heart-healthy antioxidants. Dutch processing exposes cocoa powder to alkali which is highly destructive to flavanols. The hot cocoa you’re sipping might taste good but be devoid of heart-healthy flavanols. Kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?
Now that you’re convinced it’s healthier to make a hot cocoa at home, here’s a basic recipe:
4 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder (Make sure it hasn’t been Dutch processed or exposed to alkaline)
1 cup milk alternative (almond, soy, coconut, or cashew)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Natural, calorie-free sweetener like Stevia. Liquid works best.
Heat the milk alternative on the stove until hot but not boiling. Slowly add the unsweetened cocoa powder, stirring the entire time. Add the vanilla extract. Continue to stir until the cocoa powder is completely dissolved. Then let it simmer for at least two minutes. Sweeten with Stevia to taste. For “frothy” hot cocoa, place it in a smaller blender or milk frother before drinking. It’s much more fun to drink a frothy hot chocolate.
While this version of hot cocoa is satisfying without added enhancements, you can tweak the flavor and enhance the health benefits by adding some of these ingredients to your hot cocoa:
. Cinnamon – a dash of cinnamon not only adds flavor but helps with blood sugar control.
. Dark chocolate – melt a small amount of dark chocolate (cocoa content of 70% or greater) and add it to a hot cocoa for more flavor and flavanols.
. Almond Butter – Adds healthy fats to your hot chocolate. Stir in a teaspoon of organic almond butter. Tastes oh so creamy too.
. Pinch of cayenne – Turn up the heat with a hint of cayenne! The spiciness will suppress your appetite and give your metabolism a brief bump-up.
. Matcha green tea powder – If you have matcha green tea powder around, add a pinch to hot cocoa for an added burst of healthy flavanols.
What Are the Benefits of Using a Dairy Alternative to Make Hot Cocoa?
If you don’t have a strong preference, make your hot cocoa with non-dairy milk. One of the proteins in dairy milk is casein. Studies show casein interferes with the activity of some antioxidants, particularly the catechins in tea. The situation may be similar for the flavanols in dark chocolate and cocoa powder. To be sure, use non-dairy milk like coconut or almond milk. Cashew milk is another option that’s even creamier than almond and coconut milk. Try them all and see which you like best. Non-dairy milk is usually lower in calories too. You can find almond and coconut milk with no added sugar with as few as 40 calories per serving. The drawback is milk alternatives may not have as much calcium as dairy milk.
Does Sipping Hot Cocoa Really Have Health Benefits?
Not convinced that hot cocoa offers real heart health benefits? Ask the Kuna Indians who live off the coast of Panama. They drink 5 or more cups of cocoa a day – the good stuff, not Dutch processed cocoa. Their reward? They have a very low rate of high blood pressure and heart disease.
What makes cocoa so heart healthy? The flavanols in cocoa increase production of nitric oxide, a chemical that opens up blood vessels, thereby lowering blood pressure. They also have an anti-inflammatory effect, which is important, since studies now link inflammation with heart disease. Interestingly, despite the fact that chocolate is high in calories, people who nibble on chocolate tend to be thinner, based on the results of one study.
If you need another reason to add flavanol-rich dark chocolate or cocoa to your diet, do it for your brain. In one study, older adults with a memory impairment experienced significant improvements in cognitive function when they drank a flavanol-rich cocoa beverage every day for 8 weeks. Bet that was a tough prescription to swallow!
Other Ways to Get the Benefits of Cocoa Powder
Once you’ve invested in cocoa powder – do your research and make sure you’re getting one with a high percentage of cocoa that’s not Dutch processed and has no added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Do a little research first. When Consumer Lab tested a variety of cocoa powders, they found some contained heavy metals.
You can use cocoa powder in other ways. Sprinkle it into hot oatmeal for a chocolaty treat. Dip fresh fruit into cocoa powder. Strawberries work well. Stir a spoonful into chili to bring out its flavor. Cocoa powder is good for more than just cocoa. Enjoy!
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Cleveland Clinic. “Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate”
Circulation. 2007; 116: 2360-2362.
Everyday Health. “Not All Dark Chocolate Is Created Equal”
Scientific American. Mind. “Is Cocoa the Brain Drug of the Future?”
Consumer Lab website.
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