Hot cocoa – more than just comfort for a frigid day

PrintFor the majority of you reading this post, the temperatures outside are frigid. It’s definitely frost-bite territory. A mug of hot cocoa is a perfect reward for making from the outdoors. And if the right kind of cocoa, it provides a bevy of health perks too.

It’s the cocoa component of dark chocolate that has elevated it almost to a health food status. Cocoa contains substances called polyphenols that offer a host of health benefits. The higher the cocoa content of dark chocolate, the greater the polyphenol content. Unfortunately at the present time, if you go for milk chocolate, you won’t reap the rewards. But scientists are investigating methods of milk chocolate production to stem the loss of these compounds. Stay tuned.  White chocolate, though,  doesn’t contain any at all.

But not all cocoa is created equal. Some brands undergo processing, often called dutching, which leads to the loss of polyphenols. Read cocoa labels and avoid dutched or those containing sodium bicarbonate.

The latest research, published in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases, looked at particular  aspects of  cardiovascular disease risk and  the effects of regularly consuming cocoa with milk.  Previous research has found that having cocoa-containing products defends against heart disease.

In the study, University of Barcelona researchers compared the effects of daily cocoa and skim milk consumption with that of plain skim milk in subjects at a high risk for heart disease.  They found that the cocoa and milk combo not only raised levels of the beneficial HDL-cholesterol but also showed lower readings of artery-clogging oxidized LDL-cholesterol. When LDL-cholesterol is oxidized, it’s much more likely to be deposited in your arteries.
This study provides great news on a number of fronts. For one, there has been a debate as to whether consuming cocoa with milk allows for absorption of the polyphenols. In this study, the researchers assessed the absorption and found that the milk didn’t hinder it.

Cocoa and low-fat or skim milk together can provide the same health benefits as dark chocolate with significantly less fat and fewer calories.

Why not have cocoa sometimes when you’re in the mood for chocolate?

Then there’s the sugar aspect of the cocoa-milk combo. Pure cocoa is not sweet and requires a sweetening agent to be palatable. While a small amount of sugar or agave won’t add a huge number of calories, you might also consider using a low-cal sweetener such as Splenda.

Now you may have read some pretty nasty stuff about Splenda – that it kills the beneficial bacteria in your get, decreases the absorption of various nutrients or that it’s linked to weight gain – it’s best to take it with a grain of salt. A panel of experts, including scientists from institutions such as the Harvard School of Public Health,  Rutgers University,  Columbia University, and  Duke University assessed the research on these claims and published their findings in the journal, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology.

They carefully examined each of the claims and in their assessment, they provide detailed explanations as to what they see as flaws in the study design. After reading their evaluation, I have no doubt that the claims against Splenda are meaningless.

That being said, how much would you be using in any case. If your day is filled  with an abundance of  Splenda or any sweetening agent-packed food, then your food pattern may not be optimal.

To make a cocoa drink, make a paste of cocoa, sugar/sweetener and water, then add warm milk –  or cold if you’re somewhere sunny and hot.

In an upcoming post, I’ll outline more of cocoa’s health-promoting attributes.

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Do you use cocoa for your beverages. Do you have any unusual cocoa beverage ideas to share?

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Categories: Superfoods

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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