Why isn’t hot chocolate classed as a superfood? Part Two

It’s Monday morning, your radio alarm switches on, the news is playing and they’re reporting yet another study telling us that chocolate is good for us.  What a great start to the week.  Chocolate is right up there with coffee and red wine in grabbing the headlines for nutrition based research.  No-one sets off to work with an extra spring in their step because another study has shown that broccoli is really quite good for us.  But chocolate, now that’s a different matter…

Even so, few people when they think about hot chocolate think of it as some sort of superfood.  Most of us would picture it as more of an indulgent sweet treat.  This is because when we think of hot chocolate we don’t focus on the health benefits of cocoa.  We see the drink as a whole; cocoa yes but also milk, sugars, fats and maybe some cream and marshmallows thrown in for good measure.  I like my chocolate with chilli, ginger and cinnamon – ingredients that also have a number of beneficial properties – but I’m still not drinking it for the good of my health.

But do we look at other drinks in the same way we approach hot chocolate?  Or do we focus on a single ‘superfood’ ingredient?  

My Instagram feed is about 70% full of food photographs and most of those are from ‘healthy’ food accounts. I love this online community who share their enthusiasm and love of food.  I get plenty of meal inspiration from this but I also see some ridiculous health claims and misinformation – often shared by people with a little bit of nutrition training.   

That’s my inspiration for this series of posts – exploring how healthy eating is portrayed on social media. If you’re interested in healthy eating and love all those social media food accounts then maybe these posts will help you wade through some of the hype to make choices that work for you.  If you are a fellow nutrition professional please join me in reflecting on how we post in social media and whether we are unintentionally misleading!

Today I’m focusing on drinks which claim health-giving properties.  These claims can come from a number of sources, from manufacturers, supermarket shelves and from cafes and coffee shops that promote their menu as health focused.  Social media amplifies this –matcha lattes start popping up everywhere looking intriguing, everyone with a bit of a cold seems to be posting turmeric tonic.  It’s worth a try, right?  There are a host of different drinks out there with differing claims, I’m going to look at three – turmeric tonic, charcoal and matcha latte – to give you an idea of the sorts of things we should consider.

Turmeric Tonic
There are a number of variations on this but the basic ingredients are water, turmeric powder or root, lemon juice, honey or other liquid sweetener and maybe some black pepper.  

What claims are made about turmeric tonic?  Usually that it has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  That it can bolster the immune system and help fight off colds and infections.

So what is the evidence?  Curcumin in turmeric has been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties but it is not very easily absorbed and used by the human body (bioavailable).    Turmeric is fat soluble so hot water alone isn’t going to be enough for you to absorb it.  Black pepper can also help with absorption which is why it is included in some recipes. 

So, if your turmeric tonic comes complete with black pepper and some oil will it work? 
Turmeric isn’t something that comes in dose form like the paracetamol in one of those hot lemon drinks marketed for cold relief.  Research on the benefits of turmeric have either focused on high doses in supplement form or in studies over time of people who consume a lot of turmeric in their diet in foods such as curries.  There isn’t extensive research on benefits and harms of drinking turmeric tonic. 

Is it worth a try?  If you like the taste of turmeric tonic it’s unlikely to cause you harm.  Remember that rather like the hot chocolate it is a sweetened drink so a source of added sugar; and maybe have it with food so the fats help with the absorption of the curcumin.
If you are not so keen on turmeric tonic remember you can enjoy the benefits of curcumin by including turmeric in your cooking.  Pack in plenty of veggies too and you’re getting a whole range of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.

Charcoal Latte
Charcoal latte, if you are unfamiliar with it, is usually a warm milk based drink, often sweetened and with added vanilla for flavour.  Activated charcoal is added giving it a distinctive grey/black colour for that Instagram wow factor.

But are there any health claims?  The main health selling point on this one is that it cleanses the body of toxins.

Is there any evidence to support this?  Activated charcoal binds to soluble substances in water by a chemical process called adsorption (this means it’s sticky).  It is used in water filters to remove chemicals such as chlorine from drinking water. 

That sounds like a good thing but what about it’s use in the human body?

It is used in hospital settings to limit the damage of drug overdoses.  Studies have found that people given activated charcoal within four hours of paracetamol overdose have lower rates of liver damage.  

So is it worth a try?  Activated charcoal doesn’t really have any flavour.  If we are just considering the health benefits then I would suggest that you give it a miss.


It is because it is so effective at sticking to water soluble substances that I would recommend thinking twice before ordering a charcoal latte.  Some fans of charcoal lattes advise that if you are on medication or supplements you shouldn’t have that charcoal latte within two hours of taking the medication.  This is in case the charcoal binds to your drugs and makes them less effective.  But this oversimplifies how medication works in our bodies.  Different medications will remain active in our digestive tract for different amounts of time dependent on the properties of that particular drug.

Maybe you’re not on medication.  What you need to consider is that charcoal can bind to everything that is water soluble.  This makes it as likely to bind to water soluble nutrients as to toxins.

The questions I would ask here are why do you think you have problems with your detoxification​ pathways and do you think a charcoal latte is the best way to resolve this?  If you are concerned that your liver or bowel function is not as good as it should be then please seek help from a professional rather than a barista.

Matcha Latte
Matcha is a type of green tea.  The powdered matcha leaves are mixed with milk and usually sweetener to create a distinctive green latte.

Again, it looks striking on Instagram but are there any health benefits?  Matcha lattes are also said to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  It is claimed matcha’s antioxidant properties are 10 times as powerful as normal green tea.

What is the evidence?  Because matcha is powdered rather than dried leaves you consume the leaf rather than the water it is brewed in.  So you are getting more of the green tea with it’s associated health benefits.  There is lots of evidence that consuming matcha (and other green tea) is good for us.  It is a good source of antioxidants and has been linked to reducing cholesterol and lowering risk of type two diabetes and heart disease.

So is it worth a try?  Matcha green tea?  Definitely.  Matcha latte?  This returns us to our original question of why hot chocolate is not labelled a superfood.  The health benefits I mentioned have also been associated with cocoa.  Like hot chocolate you need to consider the matcha latte as a whole, it too contains sugar, milk etc.  If you enjoy the taste then go ahead and enjoy the latte but you can get all of the health benefits from a plain green tea.

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