After playing outside in the cold, what’s better than warming up with a steaming mug of hot chocolate?
If you’re like me, most of your life’s hot cocoa experience has come from a paper packet. Simple and classic. Comfort is just a pour and a stir away.
Like many unfortunate consequences of growing up, the hot chocolate packet has somewhat lost it’s magic, mainly due to my increasing ability to decipher complex chemical vocabulary found under the “Ingredients” header on various products. While all I want is some chocolate, milk and a little sweetener to be mixed in my mug, those innocent little envelopes pack in a bit more.
One popular hot cocoa mix lists the following ingredients:
Sugar, corn syrup, modified whey, cocoa, hydrogenated coconut oil, nonfat milk, calcium carbonate, salt, dipotassium phosphate, mono- and diglycerides, carrageenan, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, artificial flavor.
Among those ingredients are indeed chocolate, milk, and sweetener, but it’s certainly not just a basic recipe. Let’s take a look:
Sugar and corn syrup – Simply put, cheap, processed sugar plus cheaper, more processed sugar.
Modified whey and nonfat milk – These were both milk…once upon a time.
Cocoa – I’ll just say “Hooray” for cocoa and move on.
Hydrogenated coconut oil – Yikes! This wins in my book as the worst ingredient. I love coconut oil, but hydrogenation makes it fall into the trans-fat category. This kind of processing takes a natural fat, makes it easier to work with, gives it a longer shelf life, and makes it incredibly damaging to the human system.
Calcium carbonate, dipotassium phosphate – These allow the manufacturer to fluff up the nutritional profile on the label, hoping consumers will notice all the great calcium.
Salt – I have no qualms with salt, but please note this is not fancy, high mineral Himalayan pink stuff.
Mono- and diglycerides, carrageenan – These are mostly for stabilizing and shelf life, but some people are sensitive to carrageenan.
Acesulfame potassium, sucralose – These are both artificial, zero-calorie sweeteners. Why sweeten a mix that already has sugar AND corn syrup? For the numbers. Raising the sweetness without a corresponding rise in calories or sugar grams makes the label look much better. While a low sugar count in a packet may seem like a good caloric deal, the artificial sweeteners have been shown to disrupt the gut microbiome and actually cause weight gain.
Artificial flavor – This could be anything. But really, should chocolate, milk and sugar need any assistance in the flavor category? My personal experience with artificial flavors is that they sometimes impart a supernatural taste on foods. This can be great at the moment but is a bummer later on when normal foods taste much blander by comparison.
This particular packet claimed only 7 grams of sugar – thanks to the artificial sweeteners. What happens if you upgrade to marshmallows? The sugar count balloons to 27g. That’s more than a typical candy bar!
Luckily, there are many solutions to the problem of junk hot cocoa. Using simple ingredients and quick preparation, better hot cocoa is just a few minutes away. With a few special ingredients, it can even be elevated to “superfood” status. Hot chocolate that’s healthy? Count me in.
Basic Hot Chocolate Recipe – serves 2
- 2 cups milk of choice (dairy, coconut, nut, etc.)
- 1 tbsp. sweetener of choice (sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup, erythritol, etc.).
- 1 1/2 tsp. cocoa powder
- Dash salt, splash vanilla extract
Whisk all ingredients over medium heat until hot. Pour in two mugs.
Collagen – Adding a scoop of collagen to your drink gives the nutrition profile a nice boost. Collagen adds protein – about 20g per scoop. Benefits of collagen include improved health of joints, skin, nails, and hair. A high-quality collagen, such as Vital Proteins, dissolves imperceptibly into liquids.
Additionally, collagen contains the amino acid glycine, which is found mostly in animal skin and bones. If you do not make a habit of consuming these animal parts – such as in homemade stocks and broths – you may be experiencing an imbalance between glycine and methionine, which is mainly found in muscle meats. Upping glycine intake can support good sleep and blood sugar control.
Cinnamon – Speaking of blood sugar control, Ceylon cinnamon is another player in that game. If you enjoy an extra sweet and spicy flavor in your cocoa, feel free to flavor your drink with the spice. Another benefit of cinnamon is the stimulation of weak digestion.
Cacao – To really up your hot chocolate game, switch from cocoa to cacao. These are basically the same thing, but cacao is the raw, less processed form. This maintains a higher antioxidant level. Cocoa had been roasted at a high temperature, which leads to a milder, less bitter flavor, but also destroys some of the health benefits.
If you’re willing to really go outside the box, shop for cacao tea. This tea is just raw cacao nibs or chopped cacao beans. This natural plant product can be steeped like any other tea in boiling water. Stirred with heavy cream, this drink imparts all of the best parts of hot chocolate – smooth, creamy chocolatey-ness – without any of the sugar or chemicals, and many true health benefits.