Taste Test: Warm Up with the Best Low-Cost Hot Cocoa

By Louis DeNicola, Cheapism.com

Temperatures plunged so low last week that frozen ATMs reportedly held cash hostage in New York and fire hoses transformed a flaming Chicago warehouse into an ice palace. One antidote for those still enveloped by bitter cold weather: sweet hot cocoa. Not too sweet, mind you -- more chocolaty than sugary, with a nice, creamy texture. Cheapism.com assembled a tasting panel in the hope of finding just such a concoction in a bargain-priced package. Here's how three popular powdered mixes ranked in a blind taste test.

Bundle up with a cup of hot chocolate.

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  • Swiss Miss Classics Milk Chocolate (starting at 17 cents per serving) emerged the winner in this tasting. The aroma filled several panelists with nostalgia and the resulting cocoa was luscious and chocolaty without being overbearing. Consumers reviewing this hot cocoa online generally draw similar conclusions, although some take issue with the use of artificial sweeteners.
  • Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Premium (starting at 40 cents per serving) stood out for its relatively straightforward list of ingredients: chocolate, cocoa, sugar, vanilla, and soy lecithin to keep things thick and creamy. The result was an intense drink with a rich chocolate nose and a higher price than the other options. While Ghirardelli's approach appealed to the tasting panel, children and others whose palates tend toward sugary treats may prefer other varieties.
  • Nestle Rich Milk Chocolate (starting at 10 cents per serving) is the cheapest of the group -- a mere quarter of the cost of the Ghirardelli mix -- yet many consumers still enjoy it, judging by online reviews. In Cheapism's taste test, however, panelists found this hot cocoa too sweet and lacking in chocolate flavor compared with the other contenders.

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Cheapism took care to prepare each mix just as the packaging recommended. While Ghirardelli requests whole milk, the Swiss Miss and Nestle mixes call for hot water (they already include some form of milk). Each hot cocoa can be purchased in a box of individual single-serving packets or a large canister of powder. The prices for the two types of packaging are generally similar. Swiss Miss and Ghirardelli also offer K-cups for use with a Keurig brewer, but those come with a considerable markup.

A number of flavors are available for consumers seeking a minty kick, marshmallow bits, or dark-chocolate taste, among other novelties. Diet and sugar-free options may appeal if you're counting calories. You can even add a spoonful of hot cocoa mix to your morning coffee to make an at-home mocha.

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For a cheap DIY alternative, create hot cocoa mix from scratch with powdered sugar, cocoa, cornstarch, and salt. Add powdered milk if you desire, or mix it up and throw in a touch of cayenne pepper. Did you know there is actually a difference between hot cocoa and hot chocolate? While the former is made from powdered cocoa, you make the latter by melting chocolate bits into milk. Either way, raise a toast to the Aztecs, who get credit for inventing drinkable chocolate.

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