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Cocoa – A drink to your health

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Dec 9, 2015

cocoaWhen the snow begins to fall and temperatures take a dip, a hot cup of cocoa does more than just warm you up.  This ancient drink traces its history back 2000 years ago to the Mayans. The taste back then would have been significantly different – can you imagine the taste of of cocoa seed paste, water, cornmeal, and chili peppers mixed together and served cold?  When introduced in Europe, sugar was used in place of the chili pepper to help 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.  A cup of cocoa may have surprising health perks possibly playing an important role in your overall wellness.

Health Benefits of Cocoa

Numerous studies have shown cocoa contains polyphenolic flavonoids, 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 have an effect on triglyceride levels which is good.

Triglycerides are a type of fat in our blood and elevated levels are associated with heart disease. Flavonoid-rich cocoa may have a positive impact on another disease – diabetes. Clinical and experimental evidence has shown a possible connection of cocoa helping reduce risk factors for diabetes.  In addition, people who drank cocoa were better able to utilize the hormone insulin, helping to regulate blood sugar. To maximize the health benefits of cocoa, buy the least processed and unsweetened 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 or in the health food section of your supermarket.

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 you make it with whole milk, chocolate syrup and whipped cream on top, the health benefits go down several notches.  That’s a lot of saturated fat and added sugar defeating the purpose!  Choose hot cocoas lower in fat and sugar and know that the higher the cocoa content – look for 100% cacao – 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 Recipe from Eating Well magazine.   Makes 1 serving.

1 tbsp. unsweetened, unprocessed cocoa powder (100% cacao content)

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, unprocessed cocoa powder (100% cacao content)

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.


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Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.