There's sweet news about hot cocoa: Researchers at Cornell University have shown that the popular winter beverage contains more antioxidants per cup than a similar serving of red wine or tea and may be a healthier choice.
The study adds to growing evidence of the health benefits of cocoa and points to a tasty alternative in the quest to maintain a diet rich in healthy antioxidants, chemicals that have been shown to fight cancer, heart disease and aging, the researchers say.
Their study, which they say is the most complete comparison to date of the total antioxidant content of these three popular beverages, will appear in the Dec. 3 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.
"Although we know that antioxidants are important for good health, nobody knows the exact daily amount required per person," says Chang Yong Lee, Ph.D., head of the study and a professor of food chemistry in Cornell's Department of Food Science and Technology, located in Geneva, N.Y. "Nevertheless, a cup or two of hot cocoa every once in a while can provide a delicious, warm and healthy way to obtain more antioxidants."
Many recent studies have touted the health benefits of red wine and tea, all of which are known to be high in antioxidants. Although researchers have been aware for some time that cocoa is also rich in these compounds, its relative contribution in comparison to other beverages has been unclear, says Lee.
To gain a better understanding of how these beverages compare in terms of antioxidants, the researchers tested them using similar serving sizes and conditions. The beverages tested included a cup of hot water containing two tablespoons of pure cocoa powder, roughly equivalent to the amount of cocoa in a normal-size packet of instant hot chocolate; a cup of water containing a standard size bag of green tea; a cup of black tea; and one glass of red wine (California Merlot).
Using special analytical techniques to evaluate the total antioxidant content in each beverage, the researchers showed that, on a per serving basis, the antioxidant concentration in cocoa was the highest: It was almost 2 times stronger than red wine, 2-3 times stronger than green tea, and 4-5 times stronger than that of black tea.
For those who want the tasty treat but also want to avoid extra sugar and dairy products that are common additives to cocoa, healthier alternatives are possible: Skim or soy milk can substitute for regular milk, while an artificial sweetener can replace the sugar.
Although you can enjoy cocoa either hot or cold, the hot version tends to trigger the release of more antioxidants than its cold counterpart, the researcher says.
Antioxidant-rich cocoa is also found in many different products including desserts, sauces, liqueurs and candy bars, which differ widely in their cocoa content. But when given a choice between getting your antioxidant fix from a cup of cocoa or a candy bar, it is better to go with the drinkable stuff, says Lee. A normal 40-gram bar of chocolate contains about 8 grams of saturated fat, compared to only 0.3 grams in an average cup of hot cocoa, he notes.
Although many other popular beverages, such as coffee and cranberry juice, also contain high levels of antioxidants, these were not evaluated in this particular study, Lee and his associates say.
Perhaps the best way to ensure that you get plenty of antioxidants is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, experts say.
Funding for this study was provided in part by the Rural Development Administration, Republic of Korea.
Materials provided by American Chemical Society. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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