Healthy Beginnings

How to Shop for Sustainable Hot Cocoa

Ingredient watch

A hot steaming mug of hot cocoa is a classic winter comfort. As this month’s Herbs and Spices article points out, there are some troubling conditions for many people who harvest the world’s chocolate. From a nutrition standpoint, sugary, stimulant beverages, such as hot cocoa are not meant to be a part of the daily diet. Once in a while, a high quality hot chocolate is still a luxurious treat many of us like to indulge in. Buying fair-trade, organic hot cocoa reduces the chances that the cacao beans we are consuming were treated with dangerous chemicals during cultivation, or were grown on farms that use exploited labor and trafficked children.

Most well known grocery store hot cocoa brands are not fair trade, or organic; many contain all sorts of strange additives and fillers. Here’s a list of some popular hot cocoa mixes, contrasted with an organic, fair trade option.


Swiss Miss Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa Mix:

Ingredients: sugar, modified whey, cocoa (processed with alkali), hydrogenated coconut oil, nonfat milk, calcium carbonate, less than 2% of: salt, dipotassium phosphate, mono- and diglyderides, artificial flavor, carrageenan. Contains milk.

Pros: I’m just going to type a little smiley face here: 🙂 (Cute isn’t it?), instead of typing something snarky.

Cons: The first ingredient listed is sugar. This cocoa is not certified organic, and could contain cocoa powder sourced through child slavery. If that weren’t reason enough to make you want to put down the box, the hydrogenated oil, chemical additives and long ingredient list are further reasons to never consume this beverage.

Nestle Hot Cocoa mix (fat free):

Ingredients: dairy product solids, nonfat milk, cocoa processed with alkali (dds insignificant amount of fat), Calcium Carbonate, Cellulose Gum, Salt, Artificial Flavors, Sodium Aluminoilcate, Sucralose, Sodium Phosphate, Scesulfame Potassium (Non-nutritive Sweetener).

Pros: Nonexistent.

Cons: As delicious as “dairy product solids” sounds…DPS are modified dairy products obtained by the removal of protein and/or lactose and/or minerals from milk or whey. Removal is accomplished by physical separation techniques, such as precipitation or filtration. PH adjusting chemicals are then added to this powdered ash and protein. Sodium Aluminoilcate contains the dangerous heavy metal aluminum. Scesulfame Potassium is an artificial sweetener that research has shown negatively impacts insulin levels, and may even contribute to some forms of cancer. If all that’s not enough to make you want to put this box back on the shelf, this hot cocoa has the same problems mentioned above. There is an extremely high chance the cacao was sprayed with dangerous pesticides, by child slaves.

Ghirardelli Double Hot Cocoa:

Ingredients: Sugar, Cocoa, Unsweetened Chocolate, Soy lecithin (an emulsifier), Vanilla

Pros: Only five ingredients, four of which are pretty much actual food.

Cons: The sugar, cocoa and vanilla are not organic, or fair trade sourced. While Ghirardelli’s website makes lots of lofty claims about their high quality beans, there is no mention of the actual source of their beans.


Equal Exchange Hot cocoa mix:

Ingredients: Organic evaporated sugar cane juice*, Organic nonfat dry milk powder, Organic cocoa powder*, processed with alkali, organic guar gum, sea salt, organic carob bean gum, organic vanilla powder, Organic vanilla extract, organic maltodextrin, organic gum arabic. (*=fair trade ingredient).

Pros: Organic and fair trade sourced ingredients. Member of The Fair Trade Federations (FTF), which is one of the most reputable groups in the fair trade movement.

Cons: Non-fat dry milk powder makes it not suitable for vegans, or those who are lactose intolerant. Because of the long-ish ingredient list, the milk powder and emulsifiers, this should still be considered a processed food. Meaning, that it’s best consumed occasionally, not regularly.

Chocolate was once considered a luxury food, something we did not eat every day. Being mindful of the great distances that chocolate must travel, as well as the intense labor required to grow, harvest and process this treat, makes the extra dollars spent on fair trade organic chocolate well worth it. Cheap chocolate, at the expense of exploited child labor, is far too high a price to pay.


1. Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. New Trends Publishing. Washington DC, 2001.