Eat Well to Be Well: Enjoy the sinful pleasure of healthy cocoa

Take a break from holiday decorating and enjoy a warm cup of cocoa – you deserve it and it’s good for you.

When the snow begins to fall and the temperatures take a dip, a hot cup of cocoa does more than just warm you up. This ancient drink traces its history 2,000 years ago to the Mayans.

The taste back then would have been significantly different as it was a mixture of cocoa seed paste, water, cornmeal, and chili peppers, and was served cold. It wasn’t until it was introduced in Europe that sugar replaced the chili pepper to sweeten it up. Today, most of us think we’re simply drinking a sinfully rich, chocolaty beverage that tastes good. But, don’t be fooled. That cup of cocoa also has surprising health perks that can have an important role in your overall wellness.

Health benefits of cocoa

Numerous studies have shown that cocoa contains polyphenolic flavonoids, which are antioxidants known to have the potential to prevent heart disease. Consuming cocoa may help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels by decreasing “bad” LDL cholesterol and increasing “good” HDL cholesterol. Cocoa does not change triglyceride levels, which is good. Triglycerides are a type of fat in our blood and elevated levels are associated with heart disease.

Diabetes is another disease that flavonoid-rich cocoa can have a positive impact on. It has been demonstrated that cocoa has a connection to helping reduce risk factors for diabetes. In addition, people who drank cocoa were better able to utilize the hormone insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar.

To really maximize the health benefits of cocoa, buy the least processed cocoa you can find. Not only will it contain more nutrients, but cocoa in its raw form has four times the antioxidants as processed cocoa. Look for it at health food stores.

To sum it up

Drinking hot cocoa is always a delicious treat but it does have its caveats. How it’s made can make a big difference. If it’s made with whole milk, chocolate syrup and with whipped cream on top, then it’s not quite as healthy. That’s a lot of saturated fat and added sugar that defeats the purpose!

Choose hot cocoas lower in fat and sugar and know that the higher the cocoa content, the more antioxidants it provides. One safe bet is to make your own hot cocoa from scratch. Following are a couple of recipes to try out this season. Remember, as you relax on a cold winter night sipping a cup of cocoa, it’s a drink to your health.

Healthy Hot Chocolate
From Eating Well magazine. Makes 1 serving.

  • 1 tbsp. natural cocoa powder
  • 1 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 cup low-fat milk

Combine 1 tablespoon cocoa powder and 1 tablespoon sugar in a mug. Swirl in 1 cup steaming hot low-fat milk. Spice it up with one of these add-ins:

  • Orange peel and ground cloves
  • Ground cardamom and vanilla
  • Chili powder and cinnamon

Favorite Hot Cocoa
From Dairy Council of California. Makes 4 servings.

  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup hot water
  • ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 4 cups of milk
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • ¾ tsp. vanilla extract

Mix cocoa, sugar, water and salt in a saucepan. Over medium heat, stir constantly until mixture boils. Cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Stir in milk and heat, but do not boil. Remove from heat and add vanilla; blend well. Serve immediately.

Sources: Dairy Council of California, Eating Well magazine, WebMD, American Heart Association Journals.

Cheryl_Mussatto_pictureCheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian who works as an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, where she teaches the course Basic Nutrition. She is also a certified health and wellness coach. She writes Eat Well to Be Well, a column about health and nutrition, and may be contacted at [email protected].

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