Laura Dean Bennett
Looking back on our childhood memories of cold, snowy winter days – the snowball fights, sled-riding, snowman-making – who doesn’t remember coming into the kitchen and having Mom warm us up with a cup of delicious hot chocolate?
I’ve always thought of hot chocolate as a sweet wintertime treat.
We all know how good it is, but, guess what?
It can be good for us, too.
Not only does hot chocolate provide warmth and comfort, but, if we’re careful about the ingredients, it actually offers a variety of health benefits.
Even those watching their waistlines or people who have diabetes can enjoy a cup of hot chocolate.
Hot chocolate – made with cocoa powder – and especially with cocoa powder made from dark chocolate is nutritious.
It offers a wide range of health benefits from reducing blood pressure to improving brain function.
Chocolate, cocoa and hot chocolate have come a long way from their roots in the ancient Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations.
Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is a tropical evergreen tree whose scientific name means “food of the gods” in Greek.
Native to lowland rainforests of the Amazon and Orinoco River basins, cacao has, since ancient times, been grown for its edible seeds – called cocoa beans.
Cocoa beans are dried and ground into cocoa powder, cocoa butter and chocolate.
Cacao beans were highly prized and generally considered almost sacred and were even used as currency in some cultures.
The drink made from the beans was called xocoatl. It was used by warriors during military campaigns.
It figured in many culture’s religious and ceremonial practices and was enjoyed as a nutritious beverage by royalty and the elite classes.
The strong, bitter brew was made of cacao beans, water and spices (often vanilla).
In some cases, but, oddly enough, not all, honey was added.
In the Aztec language, xocoatl translates to “bitter or acidic water.”
Undoubtedly, while it was the world’s first chocolate beverage, it was a far cry from today’s hot chocolate.
Mayans preferred it hot while Aztecs usually drank it cold.
The Aztecs often added chili pepper – providing a spicy flavor which is still popular today, now known as Mexican hot chocolate.
Even in ancient times, the beverages made from cacao were known to be so nutritious as to be practically miraculous.
The Aztecs demanded cacao beans as tribute from the peoples they conquered.
Montezuma II, the famous Aztec emperor, was said to drink 50 cups of a cacao beverage a day.
He limited consumption of the sacred beverage to warriors, royals, nobles and merchants (whose travels through hostile territory necessitated their mastery of weapons).
Aztec warriors received ground cacao pressed into wafers as part of their regular rations. The wafers were mixed with water in the field, providing long-lasting nourishment on the march.
Spaniards were impressed with the benefits of cacao when they encountered the Aztec civilization.
One Spanish conquistador wrote, “This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.”
Thus, chocolate beverages began their 17th century trek from the New World to Spain, Europe, England, where it was a luxury available only to the elite class.
Eventually, the drinking of chocolate came back across the Atlantic again to the colonies in North America, and we’ve been enjoying it ever since.
How can we say hot chocolate is good for us?
According to the USDA, cocoa powder is a good source of fiber and iron.
Dark chocolate cocoa (70-85 percent cacao solids) contains calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, Vitamin A and Vitamin K.
Cocoa is rich in antioxidants known as flavonoids which have been connected with plenty of health benefits, from reducing inflammation, cancer prevention and weight management to boosting the immune system – all leading to a longer life.
Flavonoids have been associated with a lower risk of heart disease, combating LDL cholesterol, increasing blood flow and reducing blood clotting.
According to the American Heart Association, cocoa has a positive effect on the cardiovascular system and can help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Cocoa’s ability to increase blood flow is thought to be at the root of its memory-enhancing abilities.
A 2013 study published in the journal, Neurology, found a correlation between hot chocolate consumption and improved memory, suggesting that two cups a day could help fight Alzheimer’s Disease.
According to Cornell University scientists, cocoa has twice the antioxidants of a glass of red wine and three times as many as in green tea.
The higher percentage of cacao the better, when it comes to chocolate bars and cocoa powder.
Dark chocolate has more antioxidants than Dutch-processed cocoa powder (as in milk chocolate cocoa powder) and that makes all the difference.
While delicious, milk chocolate bars and cocoa are not the healthiest choice.
Chocolate has a positive effect on the brain. It releases neurotransmitters that make us feel comfortable and happy, and can even reduce pain and stress.
If you’re not into making your own hot cocoa mix, there are lots of mixes on the market, even sugar-free mixes which contain natural ingredients and are recommended for those on a low calorie or diabetic diet.
But making your own homemade hot cocoa mix is so easy.
If you’re looking to make an old-fashioned hot cocoa with all the fat and sugary bells and whistles, there are lots of recipes available.
If you’d like a healthier alternative, these days, there are just as many recipes out there.
Choose a high quality unsweetened dark chocolate cocoa powder (one that’s organic, low in sugar or sugar free), natural sweeteners (like honey or pure maple syrup) or sugar-free sweeteners, low-fat milk or a milk alternative (like almond or coconut milk) and other sugar-free alternatives.
There are even sugar-free marshmallows to use for a topping.
Making your own low-cal or no-cal hot cocoa mix is a great way to warm up on a cold winter’s day and enhance your health at the same time.
Sugar Free Hot Chocolate Mix
(Makes 12 servings)
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 cup powdered skim milk
1/3 cup granulated Splenda sweetener
Add all ingredients and whisk thoroughly.
Store in an airtight container. Use 2 Tbsp. per serving.
Each serving contains 243 calories and 6 grams of carbs.
Laura Dean Bennett may be contacted at ldb@poca hontastimes.com