Hot chocolate is good for you, right?

The health benefits of cocoa-based drinks

Chocolate, mmm.

There’s something so very perfect about its composition that makes us adore and crave it. Personally, I prefer the solid form but many people are just as happy drinking it and to justify the habit, may point towards the health benefits of cocoa. But before we explore this, let’s quickly clarify the difference between hot chocolate drinks and cocoa drinks. During processing, cocoa is separated into cocoa butter and cocoa powder for use in different products. Cocoa drinks are made from just the cocoa powder whereas hot chocolate is made using dark chocolate which also includes the cocoa butter. Hot chocolate is therefore a richer beverage.

As you might suspect, any health effects stemming from cocoa-based drinks will very much depend on what else they contain and how they’re prepared. (A large mug of sugary, synthetic hot chocolate topped with marshmallows and whipped cream is unlikely deliver the same effects as a simple hot cocoa with no toppings.) To find meaningful benefits we need to tease out the effects of cocoa from chocolate products and other drink ingredients.

Cocoa powder contains a surprising amount of fibre (26–40 per cent of its composition), as well as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins. Sounds like the whole package! Cocoa also contains caffeine and theobromine. Despite their potential to benefit health, it is the richness of flavonoids in cocoa that has attracted most research interest. Observational studies have suggested a positive relationship between the consumption of cocoa and blood pressure. Flavonoids in cocoa have been linked to heart health benefits, assisting the arteries and helping maintain normal blood flow. However, most of these findings come from animal studies and have not been satisfactorily demonstrated in humans. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of cocoa have also been indicated, sparking interest in its potential to help prevent cancer, but knowledge in this area is limited and robust clinical intervention trials are still needed to prove any such findings.

While cocoa itself may contain beneficial compounds, most of us are unlikely to consume it in sufficient quantities to have any real effect. I’m sure many of us would love to increase our intake if it were in chocolate form, but this would come with the addition of unhealthy fats and sugars, negating the benefits and increasing the potential harms. Cocoa is bitter by itself and increasing consumption of it alone is a bit of an ask for most of us. The populations who’ve seen benefits to their blood pressure are small communities in different parts of the world drinking large quantities of cocoa that is particularly rich in polyphenols (e.g. the Kuna Islanders of Panama, who have very low rates of hypertension, and who drink five cups of home-grown, flavonoid-rich cocoa per day).

In addition, the cocoa that most of us consume has undergone many stages of commercial processing and is likely to contain far fewer beneficial compounds as some are lost at each stage. For example, fresh and fermented cocoa beans contain 10 per cent flavonols, a class of flavonoids, prior to processing, while the resulting cocoa powder contains about 3.6 per cent. There hasn’t been much health research into cocoa-based drinks, so we don’t yet have a body of evidence behinds its effects. Results from research into the health benefits of cocoa have to date been varied but signs from a mix of observational studies, mechanistic work and interventions look promising.

Even if there turns out to be no significant effect, we should probably focus on just how delicious such drinks are and sometimes there’s more to life than the nutritional value of what we consume.

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Science communicator, engagement & health policy professional. I write, consult & train. dralexiswillett.com punchconsulting.co.uk tangelohouse.thinkific.com

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Alexis Willett, PhD

Alexis Willett, PhD

Science communicator, engagement & health policy professional. I write, consult & train. dralexiswillett.com punchconsulting.co.uk tangelohouse.thinkific.com

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