Nutrition news has given chocoholics a reason to rejoice lately: Multiple studies show cacao-rich dark chocolate is chock-full of health-promoting nutrients and antioxidants. However, you're out of luck if you prefer milk chocolate—or if you want a cup of store-bought hot cocoa.
Yes, we're sorry to be the bearer of news that'll ruin campfires this fall and après-ski in the winter, but it turns out the only way to have a clean hot chocolate is to make it yourself, said Jennifer Glockner, RD, a dietitian in Los Angeles and author of the Smartee Plate e-book series.
"When I reviewed the nutritional information for hot chocolate at popular coffee house chains across the country, it was hard to find a healthy, clean version," she said. "The same is true for most powders you see at the supermarket. Almost all are made from processed cocoa powders and have mile-long ingredients lists."
So, what's a hot cocoa lover to do? For starters, it's important to understand why it's damn near impossible to order a clean hot chocolate:
1. They have too many calories.
Of course, this is going to depend on portion size and what kind of milk is used, but most hot chocolates range anywhere from 200 to 400 calories, Glockner said.
"Essentially, they are liquid carbohydrates, which generally produce less satiety than solid forms," she said, practically guaranteeing you'll be hungry soon after sipping.
If you can't resist… Opt for the smallest serving size, says Glockner. "If they only have larger sizes, ask them to not fill the cup beyond 8 ounces, or share with a friend."
2. They have silly amounts of sugar.
Not surprisingly, hot cocoa is loaded with sugar. But you may be shocked by just how much.
"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," Glockner said.
Most range between 34 and 41 grams of the sweet stuff per 12-ounce serving, which exceeds the daily-recommended value in one fell swoop.
If you can't resist… Say no to additional toppings such as whipped cream and chocolate sauce, which only add even more sugar.
3. They have sky-high sodium.
Sodium in hot cocoa? Sad, but true: In fact, most 12-ounce hot chocolates contain about 370 mg of sodium, which is about 16 percent of the daily recommended value. This is especially important to pay attention to if you have high blood pressure, heart or kidney disease, Glockner said.
If you can't resist… Choose the smallest serving size to keep sodium in check. Or read nutrition facts carefully and find an option that doesn't have as much sodium.
4. They use heavily processed cocoa.
Talk about a bummer: Instead of clean chocolate, most coffee houses and boxed mixes you can buy at the grocery store use dutch-processed cocoa powders (you'll see it as "cocoa processed with alkali" or "dutched cocoa" on the ingredients list), which means the cocoa has been treated to neutralize its acidity and make it taste less bitter.
"Unfortunately, this also significantly removes the flavonoids and antioxidants, which give cocoa all of its health benefits," Glockner said.
If you can't resist… Choose hot chocolate made with dark chocolate if it's available, Glockner said. It's generally the least likely to be processed. If you're making hot chocolate from scratch, choose an unsweetened, non-alkalized cocoa powder.
5. They're filled with surprise ingredients.
You'd think a simple cup of hot cocoa would be made with simple ingredients. Not so much, Glockner said.
"The options at most coffee house chains contain corn syrup, several emulsifiers, anti-caking agents, stabilizers, and artificial flavors," she said.
If you can't resist… Be a sleuth when it comes to reading nutrition labels, Glockner said. You can usually find a coffee-chain hot chocolate's ingredients on the company's website.
Considering all of this, Glockner said the best way to indulge your hot cocoa craving is to try her homemade recipe, which calls for 2 teaspoons unsweetened, non-alkalized cocoa powder (her fave is Hershey's Natural Unsweetened Cocoa), 1 cup of milk, 1 teaspoon of sugar (or a natural sweetener of your coice) to taste, and spices like ¼ teaspoon each vanilla and cinnamon. "For a different flavor, try incorporating cayenne pepper, chili powder, pumpkin spice, nutmeg, or fresh mint," says Glockner