No matter how you prepare it, a mug of hot chocolate is a one-way ticket to Nostalgiaville. You might think of it as a sweet treat from your childhood, but there are several ways you can adultify your hot chocolate by packing in key nutrients, particularly if you opt for cacao powder or unsweetened cocoa powder. The potential health benefits of hot chocolate are impressive once you graduate from hot water and an instant powder packet.
What's The Difference Between Cacao & Cocoa?
You may be confused as to whether powder labeled cacao or cocoa is the same thing as hot chocolate mix. According to Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, a registered dietitian and owner of BZ Nutrition in New York City, while all chocolate is derived from the seeds of the cacao tree, you’ll typically see “cacao” on the labels for beans, bars, baking bits, and “cocoa” for powders. But there is no scientific difference between the two, and the way a product is labeled is up to the individual brand.
“The main difference comes from the heating process when the original cacao beans are being processed, but they both offer the same health benefits,” Zeitlin explains. “The only thing to keep in mind that foods with a higher % cacao on the label will offer you more of the health benefits than a lower percentage.”
With cocoa powders, you’ll want to make sure you examine the label closely, adds Amy Gorin, RDN, a registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats in Stamford, Connecticut. Sweetened cocoa powders are usually labeled as “hot cocoa mix” and often have milk, sugar, or artificial ingredients added in. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s helpful to add in your own milks or sweeteners to plain cacao or cocoa powder if you’re looking to amp up the health benefits of your chocolatey drink.
Hot Chocolate Contains Antioxidants
According to Zeitlin, cacao powder is rich in polyphenols, which are antioxidants that offer several health benefits. According to a 2009 study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, these antioxidants can reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and improve cholesterol levels.
Cacao and cocoa are also rich in flavanols, a plant compound that contributes to lowering blood pressure levels, reducing your risk of heart attack, cancer and stroke, and improving mood and mental cognition, according to a 2011 study published in Antioxidants & Redox Signaling.
Hot Chocolate Is A Source Of Key Minerals
Cacao beans are mineral powerhouses, as they contain copper, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, per the 2009 study, all of which help to reduce the risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure. Calcium is also known to promote strong bone health.
“Magnesium also naturally lowers your cortisol (the stress hormone) helping reduce stress and anxiety,” Zeitlin adds. Can’t be mad about all that.
Different Milks Provide Different Health Benefits
You might have grown up using hot water to fix yourself a hot chocolate, but swapping in milk (of any kind) is a key way to get more nutrients in, Zeitlin says.
Cow’s milk offers the most amount of protein and is a good source of calcium, she adds. Like cacao, it’s also rich in magnesium. Whether you opt for whole, low-fat, or skim milk, all will offer the same amount of protein. “I think whole milk gives a richer, creamier texture, but you prefer low-fat, or your doctor advised you to stick to low-fat, do you,” she says.
Making your hot chocolate with alternative non-dairy milks is another option. “A key difference between dairy and alternative milks is that the alternative milks are most often fortified with vitamins and some minerals (such as calcium and vitamins A and D), whereas the dairy milk naturally contains those nutrients,” adds Gorin. “Some of these milks also contain fiber, while dairy milk does not.”
If protein is what you’re after, Zeitlin recommends unsweetened soy milk as an alternative go-to, as it packs the most protein after dairy milk. “Hemp milk is another good choice here, as it also contains protein, is a good source of magnesium and has heart-healthy fats that fight inflammation,” she says. “Almond milk, meanwhile, offers a nutty, creamy taste and while it’s low in protein, it’s full of vitamin E, which helps to boost mental cognition.”
There’s lots to love about hot chocolate beyond its nostalgia-sparking taste. Enjoy a cup all winter long and get some health benefits from it, too boot.
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Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, a registered dietitian and owner of BZ Nutrition in New York City
Amy Gorin, RDN, a registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats in Stamford, Connecticut