Experts Shared The Surprising Effects That Drinking Hot Chocolate Can Have On Your Health

As snow floats down outside of your window, you wrap your hands around your warm mug. There’s nothing quite like it – a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day. But it’s more than just a cozy wintertime beverage. It turns out that your cocoa can have some surprising impacts on your health.

It’s no secret that hot chocolate is a popular treat the world over. But it’s not made the same way everywhere you go. In the United States, for example, you’ll get a pretty thin, sippable beverage typically made from a powder. But if you go to Italy, their cioccolata calda comes with a much thicker consistency.

But no matter how it’s served, you can get a hot chocolate just about anywhere in the States. Hot-drink vending machines will always include the cocoa-based brew. And coffee shops across the country will have it on the menu, although they tend to make theirs a bit more fancily than the vending machines.

It’s not just about variety, though – there’s so much more to know about hot chocolate than the fact that it tastes good, no matter how you drink it. Strip away the sugary toppings, such as marshmallows and whipped cream, and you still have a pretty sweet beverage on your hands. But what does that mean for your health?

Well, experts have looked into the health effects of this beloved beverage, and what they found was surprising. The researchers looked into chocolate and, in particular, they broke down the sweet stuff’s ingredients to see if the candy had any redeeming qualities. It was then that one part of the recipe caught their eye.

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And that one ingredient appears in lots of mugs of hot chocolate, too. So before you brew your next batch of the sweet stuff, read this. You’ll want to know exactly what it is you’re drinking, and the effects that your favorite wintertime drink can have on your body.

We’re not the first generation to drink hot chocolate. Humankind’s affinity for the beverage likely started in 500 B.C., when the Mayans began making their version of it. It featured ground cocoa seeds, as well as chili peppers, cornmeal and just the right amount of water. They poured the ingredients from one container to another until it got nice and foamy. Who’da thought it?

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Not only did the Mayans’ cocoa have a much different flavor than today’s, it came in a different temperature. Because they drank theirs cold. And although people of all different social classes drank the Mayan version, only the rich had special cups with spouts for sipping it, and they were often buried with their mugs.

It took about 2,000 years for hot chocolate to start taking on the flavor and temperature that we expect from the beverage today. And it all started after explorer Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico and brought it under Spanish rule. When he returned to his country, he introduced the Mayans’ cocoa-based beverage, and it became a favorite in King Charles V’s court.

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But it didn’t become the court’s favorite beverage without a few minor adjustments. Because the Spanish removed the chili peppers from the recipe, choosing to sweeten the drink. They then started heating it up and voila: hot chocolate as we know it started to emerge.

Yet the Spanish didn’t want to share their secret recipe for hot chocolate, so it took more than a century to spread to Europe and, later, the world. Then the English made further adjustments to the recipe in the 1700s. Hans Sloane, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, returned from Jamaica with a new spin on hot chocolate: they mixed the sweet stuff with milk for an even better flavor.

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It made sense that Sloane, with his medical associations, would bring back a recipe for hot chocolate. Believe it or not, people relied on the drink to soothe liver and stomach illness until the 1800s. Then it transitioned into an after-dinner treat or cozy beverage on a cold day, a completely different kind of comfort.

For all of its rich history, though, hot chocolate does have its shortcomings in the eyes of health experts. Because many consider chocolate as an unhealthy addition to a person’s daily diet. And there’s lots of debate surrounding the sweet stuff, especially because there are a few different varieties of it out there.

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On the one hand, you have milk chocolate. Its manufacturers say that it’s better than the alternatives because its namesake ingredient, milk, has both calcium and protein. On the other hand, dark chocolatiers say their variety is good for the body, as it contains both antioxidants and iron. Chocolate wars, who’d have thought it.

The truth is that the nutrients you get from commercial chocolate can vary wildly from bar to bar. So the best way to know which nutrients you’re getting – or the lack of them – is by reading the label. And some indulgent candies have very little to offer by way of nutrition.

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There are, of course, some negative side effects of eating chocolate. Because sweets tend to contain a high amount of sugar. Too much of the latter can cause tooth decay. That cause-and-effect link is a strong one, as is chocolate’s links to weakened bone strength and density.

One study followed older women who ate chocolate daily. The results, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that bone strength and density were lower in those who ate the sweets. Another potential problem with eating chocolate is migraines, which might be triggered if it contains histamine, phenylalanine and tyramine.

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Unlike the bone density issue, though, research examining the links between chocolate and migraines has come back inconclusive. There’s also the argument that some varieties of chocolate may contain lead and cadmium, both of which prove toxic to the bones, kidney and tissues.

Considering chocolate’s a main ingredient in hot chocolate, it should come as no surprise that the beverage has some questionable side effects. For one thing, a mug of the sweet drink has lots of sugar in it. And dietitian Jennifer Glockner, RD, told Fox News in 2015 that many pre-made cocoa mixes have a shocking amount of the stuff.

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Glockner said, “Most hot chocolate powders on the market, as well as ones used by coffee houses, list sugar as the first ingredient, with additional sugars disguised throughout the ingredient list.” Many brands have between 34 and 41 grams of sugar per serving, more than the daily-recommended amount for most adults.

A pre-made mug of cocoa might also contain a high amount of sodium – something that’s hard to believe when you sip on such a sweet beverage. However, most will have about 370 mg per serving, a fifth of the amount of sodium you should have daily. And you don’t want to go overboard, either, as too much of it can exacerbate kidney or heart disease, as well as high blood pressure.

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Another issue with hot chocolate – at least of the pre-packaged variety – is that the syrupy kind you buy at chain coffeehouses come with a slew of processed ingredients. Glockner explained, “The options at most coffee house chains contain corn syrup, several emulsifiers, anti-caking agents, stabilizers, and artificial flavors.”

Finally – and perhaps worst of all – one of hot chocolate’s ingredients is often treated to make it taste less bitter and balance its acidity. But this strips it of all the goodness it offers, the antioxidants and flavonoids that come with it. Yet if you take your next mug of hot chocolate back to basics, you might be able to get all of that goodness back.

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Because a more basic recipe could ward off the aforementioned adverse effects. Start with a couple of teaspoons of non-alkalized cocoa powder, and add a cup of your milk of choice. Then add a dash of sweetener if you need it and flavorful spices, such as cinnamon.

It’s the cocoa that deserves your attention, though. The cocoa solids – the stuff pulverized into the brown powder – are a nutrient-dense addition to your diet. Because within them you’ll find flavanols, which are plant-based chemicals that can boost your heart health and diffuse your blood pressure, according to studies.

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Studies have also found cocoa to be a boon to health because it makes you feel fuller for longer. So having some cocoa-heavy hot chocolate can sate your sweet tooth without actually eating a ton of sugar. Plus research has further shown a promising link between cocoa consumption and the body’s ability to stop fat storage, but more has to be done to solidify that finding.

A study conducted at Dusseldorf University in Germany gathered a group of 100 adults between 35 and 60 years old. Half of the participants drank a fruit-flavored beverage which contained the flavonols found in cocoa. The other half got a flavonol free version, and both groups sipped their designated drink twice a day. With us so far?

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And the group who consumed the flavonol-filled beverage displayed a slew of promising changes at the end of the study. Their cholesterol levels went down, as did their blood pressure. Plus those in the test group saw their arterial stiffness start to loosen up, a noted improvement that the control group did not see.

This combination of improvements could have an even bigger, even more positive effect on health. Because the experts behind the study said lower blood pressure, less arterial stiffness and decreased cholesterol could ward off coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and heart attacks, too. Who knew?

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The findings did come with a warning label, however. For one thing, the test group in the flavonols study was relatively small. Another questionable point: Mars helped to fund the study, which might’ve swayed researchers to find a pro-chocolate tidbit to help their sponsor sell more chocolate. Oops! But to be fair, the European Union was another major sponsor.

Plus we need to remember that flavonols aren’t just found in cocoa. Heart health dietician Tracy Parker told the British Heart Foundation that other fare comes packed with them, too. If you can’t get yours from cocoa, then seek out “fruits and vegetables, such as dark green vegetables, berries and beetroot.”

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Parker went on to explain why fruits and vegetables make a great alternative source of flavonols. She said, “[They] provide us with a range of other vitamins, minerals and fiber and should form a core part of a balanced, healthy diet. This is consistent with our whole diet approach to healthy eating which emphasizes the importance of balance and consumption of a range of foods rather than individual nutrients or ingredients.”

But drinking a simple version of hot chocolate makes a worthwhile addition to your diet, so long as your cocoa base contains flavonol. The European Food Safety Authority agrees – it’s suggested that we ingest 2.5 grams of cocoa powder daily to get all of the body-bettering effects of flavonol.

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Of course, 2.5 grams isn’t much – you’ll probably want to scoop even more into your mug. And you can do that. But it’s still unclear just how much cocoa you can have daily to still reap the positives. You should certainly be more cautious about how many other additives you’re putting into your mug. That’s for sure.

Because a mug of hot chocolate sweetened with lots of sugar, thickened with full-fat milk and topped with marshmallows will do more harm than good. It’s not something you can drink daily, and it sure isn’t worth the flavonol pay-off. But you can include some of your favorite hot chocolate add-ins and still reap the health benefits we’ve already highlighted and more.

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For example, let’s say you mix your cocoa powder with full-fat milk. Dairy consumption has its links to decreased risk for heart disease, too. Plus it comes with a wealth of vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, zinc, vitamin A and calcium. And if you want to avoid the high calorie tally of full-fat, you can get many of its benefits by switching to skimmed or semi-skimmed.

You could also mix your hot cocoa with a plant-based milk alternative. Oat milk, for one, has enough soluble fiber to slow down the digestive process, which makes you feel fuller for longer. Your blood sugar levels will balance out, and your cholesterol levels will probably dip, too. Combine that with cocoa powder, and you’ve got yourself a very beneficial beverage to drink.

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If you choose wisely, you can even sweeten your hot cocoa in a way that won’t take away from all the goodness it contains. A few drops of all-natural honey, for instance, will provide ample sweetness. The bee byproduct also has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, which wouldn’t hurt to have in your hot chocolate, either.

Experts do say that you should keep your sugar consumption at about ten percent of your daily calorie intake. So if you plan on drinking a hot chocolate every day, you have one of two choices to reap the benefits. Either keep the sweet additions to a minimum, or skip other sugary foods during the day to make room for your cocoa. Awesome!

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In the end you shouldn’t feel as though you can only drink your body-bettering version of hot chocolate. Because life’s all about balance – if you want to indulge in a marshmallow-topped, sugar-laden cup of cocoa, then feel free to do so (sometimes). For the majority of the time, though, you can choose something a bit more pared down – and reap the health benefits.

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