This Global Favorite Can Also Be Environmentally Friendly and Healthful
There is little controversy about how good hot chocolate tastes—it is enjoyed all over the world—but there are concerns about how cacao (chocolate “beans”) is grown and processed, as well as how to prepare this rich, luscious drink for optimal health.
So, come along for a tour of global “hot cocoa” recipes and examples of environmentally friendly cacao production. Here’s to pleasing health-conscious taste buds and a Happy New Year!
Where Cacao Comes From
The Mayans called hot chocolate the “drink of the gods” and cultivated cacao trees (Theobroma cacao) and consumed its seeds 2,500 years ago. By the 1500s, the drink had spread from its native Central American rainforests to menus around the world, and cacao trees are now grown throughout the tropics to keep up with demand.
Chocolate comes from the seeds within the fruit of the cacao tree. The seeds are fermented and roasted as the first step toward making chocolate. After that, workers mash the seeds into a paste and heat it to create cocoa. Cocoa is the key ingredient in most chocolate products.
Another process involves cold pressing the fresh cacao seeds to get raw cacao, which has become popular as a superfood because it is high in antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins. Raw cacao, however, is very bitter, so it is typically added as a powder or as crumbles, called nibs, to other foods.
Research finds that most of the health benefits of chocolate are associated with dark chocolate products that have at least a 70% cacao content.
Cacao contains antioxidants such as flavanols—compounds found in plants that fight inflammation and protect cells against damaging free radicals. The antioxidants in cacao can increase heart health, balance the immune system, help the body use insulin better, improve brain function, boost athletic performance by increasing the production of nitric oxide in the blood, reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and benefit the digestive system by increasing good bacteria.
However, the chocolate-making process removes more than half of the antioxidants in raw cacao. Consumers who want the nutrients and their chocolate too, choose very dark chocolates with 60% to 70% cacao.
Raw cacao is a good source of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium. In contrast, milk chocolate has far fewer health benefits, and white chocolate is pure cocoa butter with no health benefits (although nobody can deny that the happiness that chocolate provides could be a measured health benefit if used in moderation).
Chocolate is a beloved product that comes from an industry that has been plagued by horrific issues involving child labor, environmental destruction, and poverty.
As environmental consciousness grows, consumers will seek to ensure that all chocolate comes from properly managed and biodiverse cacao farms.
Sustainable chocolate is produced in ways that protect the environment, the people, and the economy. This means that the farming of the cacao trees doesn’t contribute to deforestation or soil erosion, and farmers don’t use toxic herbicides or pesticides. It also means that growers are fairly compensated through fair trade and labor practices, and that child labor laws are enforced to prevent abuse.
For detailed explanations of the various certifications on cocoa labels and information on specific companies and their environmental, social justice, and human rights practices, take a look at Green America’s Chocolate Scorecard. For a deeper dive into the serious issues within the chocolate industry, along with myriad loopholes in the certification requirements, see The Ethics of Chocolate from the United Kingdom’s Ethical Consumer website.
A World of Goodness
Chocolate is enjoyed around the world, where it is available in endless forms and is even a symbol of love. Moreover, as people travel the world, they will find delightful regional variations of “hot chocolate” that are based on culinary and cultural traditions.
It may be no surprise that one of the most decadent hot chocolate recipes comes from France. Parisian Chocolat Chaud contains high-quality chocolate, whole milk, cream, vanilla, and brown sugar that results in a melted fudge texture that is thick and indulgent.
Cioccalata Calda is another thick cup of decadence. Italians use heavy cream, milk, and then add cornstarch to thicken it further. The result is a pudding-like consistency that can be slurped from a mug or eaten with a spoon.
While hot chocolate may bring up a vision of cocoa piled high with whipped cream and sprinkles, it’s not all about the sweetness. In Mexico, hot chocolate gets some extra heat with the addition of chili pepper. Hungarian hot chocolate includes hot paprika, cloves, and white pepper. Similarly, in India, spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, clove, ginger, and peppercorn might be found in a base of white chocolate to create a drink that is like chai candy. But Colombia may take the prize for most unusual hot chocolate: It contains bitter chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, honey, and cubes of cheese.
Homemade and Healthy
Many people grew up with instant hot chocolate, but it’s quite simple to make a nourishing cocoa drink from scratch and vary the ingredients to one’s liking.
Here is a basic recipe for four servings of homemade comfort in a mug:
4 cups milk of choice: whole, 2%, or almond milk are common
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 Tbsp sugar of choice: maple syrup, granulated sugar, brown sugar, honey
Pinch of salt
½ cup semisweet chocolate chips or chopped dark chocolate
½ tsp pure vanilla extract (optional)
In a saucepan, heat the milk, cocoa powder, sugar, and salt over medium-low heat. Whisk until just simmering warm (do not allow to boil). Add chocolate and vanilla and whisk until smooth. Pour into mugs and top with marshmallows or whipped cream if desired.
Try different flavors by choosing an extra ingredient such as cinnamon, caramel sauce, peppermint extract, peanut butter powder, or espresso. For an adult beverage, try adding a splash of raspberry liqueur, Kahlua, Baileys Irish Cream, or vanilla vodka.
Continue your worldly hot cocoa adventure with these recipes that include unexpected ingredients like matcha tea and red wine (not together, but still!). Or try some from this collection to get some strawberry, coconut, or vegan hot chocolates going. For more grown-up hot chocolate ideas, The Bewitchin Kitchen presents a slew of recipes and explains how bourbon, rum, whiskey, and other spirits can create delicious, spiked hot chocolate.
Pick a recipe, make a mug full, and settle in for one of the world’s most soothing treats to warm the heart and soul on a cold winter’s eve.
*Julie Peterson is a freelance journalist based in the Midwest region of the US who has written hundreds of articles on natural approaches to health, environmental issues, and sustainable living.