I grew up in upstate New York, so as a kid, shaking off the snow and savoring a cup of hot cocoa was a daily winter ritual. Those days I wasn’t picky; any old packet or powder would do.
But as a grown-up and a nutritionist, I’m now pretty discriminating about what I put in my grocery cart and recommend to my clients. Hence, my five tricks for health-ing up your hot cocoa—without sacrificing a sip of satisfaction.
Reach for a plant-based “milk”
Yes, they’re lower in protein compared to cow’s milk, but unsweetened plant-based “milks” like coconut and almond are also lower in calories, ranging from a mere 30 to about 60 calories per cup, versus 80 to 90 in the same amount of skim. They also provide the natural creaminess that fat-free cow’s milk lacks, and because they’re plant-based, the fat they contain is heart healthy and bundled with antioxidants. My pick for the creamiest hot chocolate is unsweetened coconut milk (the kind in the dairy case or shelf-stable quart containers, not the canned variety). One cup contains 5 grams of fat, but it’s so creamy I use three-quarters of a cup, mixed with a quarter cup of water. That brings the fat down to less than 4 grams, but the type of fat found in coconut milk has been tied to boosting metabolism, improving cholesterol profiles (upping the “good” HDL, and lowering the “bad” LDL), and whittling waistlines.
Use natural or non-dutched cocoa
Standard hot chocolate mixes are usually made with cocoa processed with alkali. Alkalizing, or dutching, is a chemical process that lowers acidity, which has also been shown to markedly reduce the cocoa’s antioxidant content. One study found natural cacao packed up to 10 times more antioxidants than heavily processed powder. Dutching is often done to reduce bitterness, but I find that quality organic brands taste absolutely wonderful (chocolatey and not overly bitter) in their natural, non-alkalized state. Splurge on a canister, rather than a pre-sweetened cocoa mix.
Use a natural sweetener
Many traditional cocoa mixes are sweetened with refined sugar and/or corn syrup, a mixture of sugar and artificial sweetener, or just the latter. Instead, reach for something that provides natural sweetness with other beneficial properties. My top three picks: organic honey, blackstrap molasses, and organic maple syrup. I tested all three for this post, and while each has a unique and enjoyable flavor, honey was the hands down favorite (see recipe below).
Aside from natural sugar, honey contains antioxidants, and natural anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-inflammatory compounds. A San Diego State University study found that compared to the same amount of table sugar, rats fed honey showed reduced weight gain, less body fat, lower triglycerides, and higher “good” HDL levels.
In addition to providing some vitamins and minerals, including 2 percent of the Daily Value for iron, calcium, and magnesium per tablespoon, blackstrap molasses contains health-protective antioxidants. A Virginia Tech study which compared the antioxidant content of several sweeteners found that refined sugar, corn syrup, and agave nectar contained minimal amounts. Raw cane sugar scored a little higher, followed by maple syrup, brown sugar, and honey with intermediate levels, but blackstrap molasses was the real standout, packing the greatest antioxidant punch.
Add flavor naturally
Commercial mixes typically contain artificial flavor, but you can easily add flavor, aroma, and even a little extra nutrition naturally. My two must-haves are organic pure vanilla extract and either ground cinnamon or a blend like pumpkin pie spice. Here’s my favorite ingredient combination:
¾ cup unsweetened coconut milk
¼ cup water
2 teaspoons organic honey
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon, or a blend, like pumpkin pie spice
1 Tbsp unsweetened non-alkalized organic cocoa powder
How to make it: Warm coconut milk and water in a saucepan over low-medium heat, or in the microwave for one and a half minutes. Add honey, vanilla, spices, and cocoa powder, stir until cocoa dissolves, and enjoy.
And if you’re feeling adventurous, try experimenting with a sprinkle of other natural spices in place of or in addition to cinnamon and vanilla, like cardamom, cloves, or even chipotle or black pepper!
Melt squares in place of powder
If you’re already a dark chocolate fan and you have bars or tasting squares on hand, you can use them in place of cocoa powder and sweetener to whip up a steamy cup of goodness. Place two small or one larger tasting square of dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa or greater) in the bottom of a mug. Add two tablespoons of very hot, but not boiling water, and stir until the chocolate is dissolved. Add warmed coconut milk (in this case three quarters of a cup coconut mixed with two tablespoons water), vanilla extract, and cinnamon. This recipe allows you to skip the sweetener, since the squares already contain sugar.
A 9 gram tasting square contains about 45 calories, compared to 40 in two teaspoons of honey and 15 in a tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa, so while the calorie difference is minimal compared to my recipe above, this version can offer a big savings compared to a pre-sweetened powder or coffee shop cocoa. For example, a tall hot chocolate from Starbucks made with skim milk and no whipped cream contains 210 calories, compared to an even 100 in my recipe above. Cheers!
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.