Chocolate milk is a popular mixed dairy and chocolate product.
While some people claim chocolate milk is a sugary drink that we should limit, others believe it is a nutritious beverage that has several benefits.
Which of these positions is correct?
This article provides a complete guide to chocolate milk, its nutritional values, and what the research says.
How Is Chocolate Milk Made?
The production of chocolate milk is a relatively simple process that involves mixing cocoa powder and sweeteners (or premade chocolate powder) with regular milk.
According to the USDA, the ingredients of a standard chocolate milk brand are shown below (1):
- Low-fat milk
- Carrageenan (thickener)
- Vanilla flavoring
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D3
However, it is worth noting that the exact ingredients profile may vary from brand to brand.
According to the USDA FoodData Central database, a cup of chocolate milk offers the following nutritional values (2):
(*RAE = Retinol Activity Equivalents)
As the nutritional values suggest, this particular chocolate milk will have been made with fat-free milk. Additionally, the sugar content is 23.1 grams per cup serving.
Compared to regular milk, which has a sugar content of 12.3 grams per cup, the amount of sugar is approximately 10 grams higher (3).
If we assume that there are naturally 12 grams of milk sugars in a cup of chocolate milk, then one cup likely has around 10 grams (2.5 teaspoons) of added sugar.
According to the World Health Organization, we should limit added sugar intake to 25 grams per day (approx six teaspoons) (4).
National dietary guidelines are generally a little less stringent. For example, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends an upper limit of 12 teaspoons (48 grams) of sugar per day (5).
Chocolate Milk Is a Good Source of Vitamins and Minerals
If we ignore the sugar content for a moment, the two major ingredients of chocolate milk are milk and cocoa powder.
Both of these ingredients are nutrient-rich and offer a wide range of vitamins and minerals.
For this reason, chocolate milk is also surprisingly nutritious. Per cup serving, chocolate milk offers the following micronutrients (2, 6):
- Riboflavin (B2): 32% of the daily value
- Vitamin B12: 33% DV
- Vitamin A, RAE*: 18% DV
- Vitamin D: 14% DV
- Thiamin (B1): 9% DV
- Choline: 7% DV
- Folate: 6% DV
- Vitamin B6: 4% DV
- Niacin (B3): 3% DV
- Vitamin E: 1% DV
- Vitamin K: <1% DV
Chocolate milk has slightly less of each vitamin compared to regular whole milk.
- Calcium: 24% DV
- Copper: 21% DV
- Phosphorus: 20% DV
- Sodium: 12% DV
- Potassium: 10% DV
- Zinc: 9% DV
- Selenium: 9% DV
- Magnesium: 8% DV
- Iron: 4% DV
Compared to regular whole milk, chocolate milk has slightly more calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and zinc. This is because cocoa is a naturally rich source of minerals.
However, chocolate milk has less selenium than regular milk.
Other Bioactive Compounds
Chocolate milk offers a low to moderate amount of flavonoids.
Flavonoids are a type of polyphenol thought to have potential health benefits, and cocoa is one of the best sources (7, 8).
However, pure cocoa powder and regular dark chocolate are far better sources of these compounds.
Chocolate milk also contains small amounts of theobromine and caffeine (9, 10, 11).
Does Chocolate Milk Enhance Recovery From Exercise?
Due to its provision of protein, sugars, and electrolyte minerals, chocolate milk has been positioned as a post-workout recovery drink in recent years.
In this regard, numerous studies have concluded that chocolate milk may improve exercise recovery compared to regular water or carbohydrate-based recovery drinks (12, 13, 14, 15, 16).
However, while encouraging studies on chocolate milk and recovery do exist, it is essential to look at the totality and strength of that evidence.
The current most substantial level of evidence lies in a 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis that analyzed the findings from twelve randomized controlled trials (17).
On the positive side, this review did find that chocolate milk “provides either similar or superior results” compared to other recovery drinks.
Conversely, although chocolate milk slightly improved performance measures such as ‘time to exhaustion’ and heart rate, the results were not statistically significant.
It is also worth noting that the dairy industry funded several of the trials on chocolate milk. However, while the funding sources of a study are worth bearing in mind, they are not a reason to discard research findings; after all, all research requires funding from somewhere.
Finally, the authors noted that the existing evidence base is limited and that higher-quality human trials with larger participant numbers are necessary.
What Is Chocolate Milk Replacing In the Diet?
When we contemplate whether a particular food or drink is healthy (or not), we always need to consider what that item is replacing in the diet.
For example, if chocolate milk is replacing a typical can of soda, then we can think of it as a beneficial swap because:
- The two contain a similar amount of calories.
- Regular soda contains far more sugar than chocolate milk.
- Chocolate milk offers protein, whereas soda does not.
- Chocolate milk contains a wide range of vitamins and minerals, whereas soda does not.
Is it a replacement for regular white milk? In this case, chocolate milk may offer extra mineral content, but it also has more added sugar and a slightly lower vitamin content.
Does an individual need more minerals such as copper and magnesium in their diet?
Perhaps chocolate milk could be useful in this situation, although dark chocolate or something like cacao nibs would offer more of the minerals (and less sugar).
Is someone trying to cut down on added sugar intake? In this situation, perhaps it is better to give chocolate milk a miss.
A recovery drink after intense exercise? Chocolate milk may be a better option than sugary carbohydrate drinks as it also offers protein and a more comprehensive range of nutrients.
In other words, whether chocolate milk is a good choice (or not) depends on the individual, their overall diet, and the circumstances.
Homemade Chocolate Milk Is Easy To Make
Since store-bought chocolate milk can be high in sugar and contain various additives, making a homemade drink is an alternative and arguably healthier option.
Fortunately, with the aid of a blender, it is a simple process that takes less than a minute.
- A cup of milk
- 1 tsp cocoa powder
- 1 tsp sugar (or sweetener of choice)
- Pinch of vanilla paste (or a few drops of vanilla essence)
Whether the milk is whole milk or low-fat is not important. For those who are avoiding dairy, options like coconut milk will work well too.
Put the milk, cocoa powder, sweetener, and vanilla in the blender and then blend for about twenty seconds.
After this, the chocolate milk will be ready to drink or move to the refrigerator for later.
As shown in this article, chocolate milk is—perhaps surprisingly—an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and minerals.
However, the drink also contains 2-3 teaspoons of added sugar per cup, which may put some people off.
In this case, following a homemade chocolate milk recipe can provide the same benefits with less (or no) added sugar.
All in all, chocolate milk is a reasonably nutritious drink with some benefits and some drawbacks.
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