When the seasons start to grow chillier — and the infatuation with pumpkin spice begins to fade — warm beverage lovers are game-on for a steamy and creamy mug of hot chocolate. Many high-end retailers are touting dark drinking chocolate products these days, but do they have?the host of health benefits, including helping to fight?inflammation, that eating dark chocolate does?
Great news, chocolate lovers, it seems as though it does: “I have not seen anything that indicates a pitfall or problem with drinking dark chocolate drinks for health benefits,” says Lona Sandon, PhD, RDN, an associate professor in the department of clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern in Dallas, who also has rheumatoid arthritis. But the type of chocolate drink you sip and enjoy will make all the difference.
Why Does Dark Chocolate Help With Chronic Inflammation?
Inflammation occurs naturally in the body as part of its?immune response. When you’re fighting an infection or injury, your body sends inflammatory cells to the rescue to help you heal faster. But if inflammation lingers, turning into chronic inflammation, it means your body remains in a state of high alert, increasing risk for some serious health issues, including joint pain, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.
Here’s where anti-inflammatory dark chocolate can help: It contains phytonutrients known as flavonoids, which are health-boosting antioxidants found in certain plants. “Flavanols, a specific type of flavonoid, are a compound found in cacao and the raw cocoa bean,” says Sandon. “They have biological activity that helps combat inflammation in the inflammatory pathways, so it can help block some of those pathways and slow down the inflammation.”
What Type of Dark Chocolate Should I Be Looking For?
While these beverages are certainly trendy, not all products are created equal. In order to reap any health benefits, “you have to look for products that are made with the right chocolate, like dark chocolate, not milk chocolate,” says Sandon. “It’s not going to be Swiss Miss. It won’t have that sweetness. The taste will be a little bitter.”
The?healthiest dark chocolate typically has around 70 percent cacao, but Sandon says the percentage doesn’t matter as much as the processing technique used to make it. Dutch processing, a common technique that uses alkalizing agents to lessen the bitter taste, will destroy the anti-inflammatory flavanols, she says. “This is most of the stuff that’s out there,” she says. If you want the benefit, you need to look carefully to find it.”
Read Ingredient Lists and Avoid Alkali
Here’s how to do that detective work: Look at the ingredient list on whichever dark drinking chocolate product you want to imbibe. Hot cocoa served in cafés most likely won’t have the information of how the chocolate was processed — although it wouldn’t hurt to ask — but the ones you purchase to make at home should. “What you need to look for on the label is whether or not it was treated with alkali in the processing of it,” says Sandon. “The ingredients label should list alkali if it was used to make the product,” she says. “It won’t be right on the front of the box, but on the back in the fine print. Manufacturers are expected to disclose that, unless the product is sold as a supplement, which may not have the same requirement.”
What Products May Have an Anti-Inflammatory Effect?
You should definitely scan the label of any dark drinking chocolate brands you want to try to make sure they don’t contain alkali, but Sandon says there are cacao products on the market you can use to make hot chocolate that have been developed specifically for their flavanol benefits, such as?CocoVia and?Flava Naturals. “A full 1-tablespoon scoop of Flava Naturals has up to 900 milligrams of the flavanols that will help fight inflammation, as well as boost nitric oxide to open up blood vessels,” she says. These products are not easily found in grocery stores, so they’re best ordered online.
How Can I Make Healthy Hot Dark Drinking Chocolate at Home?
If you can’t find a dark drinking chocolate brand that has the essential no-alkali credentials, not to worry. It’s not terribly complicated to concoct your own dark chocolate drink right at home. The basic technique is to melt dark chocolate bars and add water, cow’s milk, or plant-based milks, such as oat or almond milk, to taste. Sandon also notes that Dove “Deeper” dark chocolate squares, with cacao percentage on the label, are a product that does preserve the flavanols. “A double boiler will help you not burn it, which affects the flavor,” Sandon says.
If you don’t have the time or equipment for melting with a double boiler, it’s also possible to turn inflammation-fighting dark chocolate into liquid in the microwave. The trick is to melt it slowly. “Start by melting the chocolate at 30-second intervals,” Sandon says. “Stir it, and then add a little more time so you don’t burn it.”
As far as what liquid you add to it to finish it off for a delicious mug, Sandon says that’s a matter of personal preference. “I don’t think that using plant-based milks or creamers makes much of a difference in how healthy it is,” she says. “If you want a treat with healthy protein, you’re better off using cow’s milk, since plant-based milks don’t contain as much protein, and they don’t have as much calcium or vitamin D either.”