Is Hot Chocolate Healthy?
Hot chocolate has come a long way but is essentially a beverage using cocoa. It had been used medicinally, for specific cultural reasons, and simply for enjoyment. Today hot chocolate is a relatively easy-to-find drink. Any local coffee shop has a version of their own. Some use syrup, others use cocoa powder. With the decline in the dairy industry, there are also a variety of milk alternatives now. The quality of this beloved drink ranges from specialty standards to packaged mixes available in any grocery store.
But the question remains, is hot chocolate healthy?
A Brief History
Hot chocolate (or hot cocoa) has been around since the time of the Aztecs. Their culture – which referred to the drink as xocōlātl – knew when they had a good thing going. There are verified findings of hot chocolate at Mayan sites. Their drink usually served cold, centered around ground cocoa seeds. The Aztecs – of which Mayans are a part – used chocolate as a form of payment and social standing. Those in the higher classes of society had access to chocolate.
The “original” hot chocolate didn’t contain sugar, as the sweetener hadn’t made its way around the world yet. Eventually, the drink was served hot by some, and vanilla was added to enhance the flavor.
When the Europeans showed up in the early 16th century they were introduced to cocoa beans and the bitter chocolate drink of the Mayans. The drink was brought back to Europe and gained popularity quickly, where it was also made a part of the upper classes.
Around this same time sugar was added to hot chocolate to cut the bitterness. Thus began a lot of experimentation with other additives, including spices and flowers.
Today’s standard hot chocolate recipe consists of cocoa powder, milk, and sugar. It can and has been altered depending on cultural location or personal preference. In some parts of Europe, hot chocolate is thickened; in North America, the “instant” packets are preferred by many.
Either way, hot chocolate has secured a place for itself in almost every culture as a delicious staple.
Hot Chocolate Components: The Chocolate
When we think “chocolate,” we’re usually picturing it in bar form. A block of chocolate that has already been processed into a consumable good. But chocolate goes through a few different stages and forms. Each one has its own benefits in addition to the overall health benefits that chocolate provides.
- Cocoa: The cocoa bean is a seed that, when dried and fermented, provides cocoa solids, which are the basis of chocolate. Cocoa beans are high in antioxidants – 3x as high as the amount found in green tea – and studies have shown that even more antioxidants are released when the cocoa is hot.
- Cocoa powder: This powder is an unsweetened product created from the seeds after the fat is removed. The cocoa solids are then ground down into a powder. This powder is full of fiber and iron; the only downside is, the more processed the powder, the less natural antioxidants as well.
- Dark Chocolate (70-85%): Dark chocolate is rarely a favorite as it has less sugar and is on the bitter side, but it has some amazing health benefits and is full of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin A and vitamin K. Hot chocolate made with dark chocolate has an extra richness to it.
But what does all of that actually mean?
The antioxidants in cocoa and chocolate, known as flavonoids, reduce inflammation, boost immune systems, and are associated with weight management and cancer prevention. These flavonoids also increase blood flow, meaning that as an added side effect they reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Increased blood flow also leads to better memory – this has actually been scientifically proven! Areas of the brain that need more energy to complete their tasks are supported and replenished by this better flow.
And lastly, the vitamins. Vitamin A helps with eyesight, immune system function, skin, and bone health, and lowers the risk of certain cancers. Vitamin K creates blood clotting (the good kind) and supports bone health.
As a general rule: the higher the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate, the healthier it is for you. Just note that the level of cocoa is also directly related to the amount of caffeine found in hot chocolate.
Hot Chocolate Components: The Milk
Hot chocolate isn’t made up of too many things, but the liquid of choice is about 90% of the process.
Hot chocolate is most commonly made with cow’s milk, but the rise of almond and other milk alternatives has put a new spin on texture and taste. Here are some of the top choices:
- Milk (whole): The story goes that Hans Sloane, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, was the one who found the recipe using milk from a Jamaican source. It’s the most common liquid and provides calcium, vitamin B, potassium, and vitamin D.
- Almond milk: A dairy-free alternative, this milk is made by soaking and then grinding almonds. It adds a nutty flavor but has a less creamy, somewhat watery texture. Almond milk is high in vitamin E, calcium, and potassium.
- Oat milk: A much more creamy dairy-free alternative, oat milk is the most recent milk on the rise. Oats go through a similar process to that of almonds but provide an oatmeal-like flavor. It’s a great source of fiber, calcium, and vitamin D.
Most people are familiar with the benefits of calcium when it comes to bone strength and overall health, but it’s also an important part of blood clotting. It’s one of the main reasons milk is and has been deemed good for the body.
Vitamin D is a vitamin that many people are deficient in. It also helps with bone health as well as keeping muscles strong and fighting inflammation. Fiber is an important component of diets as it normalizes bowel movements and lowers cholesterol. And lastly, potassium takes care of your muscles and reduces blood pressure. When all of this is taken into consideration, it’s obvious why milk – and its alternatives – is good for our body.
Making the statement that hot chocolate is a healthy drink wouldn’t be inaccurate. In fact, it provides many key vitamins and nutrients that our body needs to function at its full strength.
Hot chocolate also plays a role in mental health – simply making people happy – and self-care.
But it’s important to remember that, as with anything else, too much of a good thing can be detrimental. Overloading on chocolate and milk can slow your body down and up your calorie intake to an unhealthy level.
Hot chocolate is also usually made with processed ingredients and a large amount of sugar. Perhaps the best way to keep it healthy is to make your own, at home!