The Surprising Way Hot Cocoa Benefits Your Health

It's that time of year again! Cold weather is drawing us into the warmth of our homes, to wrap ourselves in chunky blankets and enjoy a nice hot cup of cocoa. To many, a cup of hot chocolate was a delicious childhood reward for shoveling snow, but studies are now finding cocoa actually has quite a few health benefits.

Flavonoids are small molecules found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and are known to protect against heart and vascular disease (via Scientific Reports). Cocoa has a high-flavanol content and has been found to offer a plethora of health benefits. A recently published study found that cocoa flavonols increased oxygenation of certain areas of the brain as well as improved cognitive function when cognitive demand was high. In essence, cocoa flavonols helped the brain get more oxygen and improved memory and critical thinking functions. While the exact mechanism is not yet fully understood, it is believed that nitric oxide plays a key role.

In fact, increased nitric oxide levels within blood vessels is believed to increase their ability to dilate, thus leading to a decrease in overall blood pressure (via Cochrane Library). Decreasing blood pressure is known to lower the risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular events significantly.

Additional health benefits of cocoa

In addition to a high flavonol content, cocoa is also high in polyphenols, which are potent antioxidants commonly found in fruits, vegetables, teas, and more. While polyphenols also help reduce blood pressure, they also reduce systemic inflammation, decrease LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, and improve blood glucose levels. Overall, these effects decrease your risk of serious medical events such as heart attack and stroke.

While it may be tempting to run out and buy all the hot chocolate mix in the supermarket or grab that ever-tempting chocolate bar, commercial chocolate and cocoa products are usually over-processed (via Frontiers in Nutrition). The more processed the cocoa, the less health benefits you'll reap. Many hot chocolate mixes are also high in added sugar and fats, so reading nutrition labels is key. Additional studies are needed before a recommendation can be made on which form of cocoa is best to consume, but in the meantime, curl up with a warm cup of hot chocolate and give your brain a little boost.