Chocolate milk contains carbohydrates, proteins, and fat, as well as water and electrolytes which makes it a surprisingly good candidate for a recovery drink. In a recent meta-analysis, a team of researchers investigated other studies that looked at how well chocolate milk fares in this regard, compared to a placebo or other products. The results, as some would say, will surprise you.
In recent years, the health industry has boomed. Just go to any market selling specialized products (or even to health aisles in many supermarkets), and you'll see myriad products, often nigh-indistinguishable from one another. While some are indeed more science-based and effective, it's hard to know how to find them in the unfamiliar crowd on the shelves.
But what if a familiar product was also effective?
Chocolate milk was reportedly created in Jamaica by Hans Sloane, an Irish physician, naturalist, and collector. It took a while for it to get popular, but nowadays, it's become one of the most popular drinks on the market. The main draw is the taste, as the mouthfeel of the milk masks the dietary fibers in the cocoa solids, and the dark richness of chocolate works well with the fatty milk (although more recently, non-fat or skimmed chocolate milk have also become popular).
The health benefits of chocolate milk are still hotly debated, with sugar being a particularly contentious topic, especially when it comes to child nutrition. However, the drink may also be helpful in some situations -- such as recovering from a workout.
A study led by Mojgan Amiri, currently at the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands and previously at the University of Medical Sciences in Yazd, Iran, analyzed the effects of chocolate milk as a recovery drink. The team analyzed 12 previous studies on the topic.
"Chocolate milk (CM) contains carbohydrates, proteins, and fat, as well as water and electrolytes, which may be ideal for post-exercise recovery. We systematically reviewed the evidence regarding the efficacy of CM compared to either water or other "sport drinks" on post-exercise recovery markers," the researchers write in the study.
Several previous studies have suggested that ingesting chocolate milk improves recovery and performance measures, especially a metric called the "time to exhaustion" or TTE-- the time (at a given power or intensity) after which an exercise cannot be maintained. However, singular studies often focus on small sample sizes or a singular metric, whereas a meta-analysis (a study of studies) can offer a more large-scale picture. Although this is a fairly small meta-analysis, it's one of the most comprehensive efforts to date.
When it comes to chocolate milk as a recovery drink, the studies don't always agree. Some have found that fat-free chocolate milk increases the TTE, while others report more mixed results. It's exactly in this type of situation that meta-analyses can provide a clearer picture. In this case, the researchers concede that there is a need for larger studies, but they ultimately conclude:
"Chocolate milk provides either similar or superior results when compared to placebo or some other recovery drink. Overall, the evidence is limited and high-quality clinical trials with more well-controlled methodology and larger sample sizes are warranted."
This is not to say that recovery drinks don't have their use and you should just replace everything with chocolate milk. These products can vary greatly in quality and some are better than others; they can also be tweaked, and you can find specialized drinks with varying levels of protein, electrolytes, or carbohydrates, depending on what you're looking for exactly.
Chocolate milk may also come with its own shortcomings. It often contains a lot of sugar (twice as much sugar as plain low-fat milk), fat (if it's not fat-free), and potentially other additives. There are also potential health issues with milk (most people on the planet are lactose intolerant) and ethical reasons, linked with greenhouse gas emissions and animal treatment.
With these caveats, however, the ability of chocolate milk, which many would treat as a simple dessert or unnecessary treat, to work as a recovery drink is remarkable. With larger studies still pending and the exact improvements still remaining to be discovered, chocolate milk appears to be an affordable and easily available recovery drink substitute.
The study was published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.