We Tasted 4 Hot Chocolates From Fast-Food Chains & the Winner Was a Major Upset
Whether you call it hot cocoa or hot chocolate, the season of festive sweetness is upon us. After a snowy day or chilly football game, there is nothing that warms the soul quicker. Plus, today, Dec. 13, just so happens to be National Cocoa Day, so it's the perfect time to grab your favorite type and sip away.
In honor of the day, we tried the signature hot chocolate drinks from Starbucks, Dunkin', Panera, and McDonald's to see which is the best tasting—and you're going to be surprised by the results.
The Method: Four people tasted the four hot cocoas side-by-side in a blind taste test, to not be swayed by fancy packaging or lack thereof. All hot cocoas were tasted in a take-out setting so fancy swirls and the whipped cream topping had disappeared by the time we had tasted them, negating the effect of the accouterments. Here are the hot cocoas ranked from bottom to top—purely based on flavor.
The look: Panera's hot chocolate wins the award for most unnecessary extras. It is made with a mixture of "bittersweet" chocolate syrup, reduced-fat milk, whipped cream, and a caramel drizzle. The caramel syrup, while probably pretty in the restaurant, had melted along with the whipped cream into a syrupy, milky mess. It did, however, have an inviting color and was dark and chocolatey.
The taste: Panera's taste ranked at the bottom of this list. Although everyone liked the tongue-coating texture of this drink, two testers commented on a strange aftertaste, and all commented on the excessive sweetness. "I couldn't drink more than a sip of this," said one. One did enjoy the sweetness, and ranked this drink as #1, but agreed a whole cup of this would be an overdose.
Overall: With 53 grams of sugar and a total of 73 grams of carbs, and a whopping 470 calories—the most in this taste test—this drink is like a meal replacement with a heavy dose of the sweet stuff. Panera should have a super small version of this or just leave out the caramel to smooth out the flavor and lower the calories.
The look: McD's hot chocolate is made with steamed whole milk, "rich hot chocolate syrup," whipped light cream, and a chocolate drizzle. Again, because these were takeout, we didn't see the fancy drizzle. The drink did not look like a chocolatey drink, and every taster commented on the extremely pale color of the drink.
The taste: This was the thinnest of the cocoas, and everyone noticed. They called it "mild," "not bad," and "suitable for kids." One noted that it essentially tasted like warm chocolate milk, not rich hot cocoa. One did think that it was creamier than the others. No one loved it and no one disliked it.
Overall: At 370 calories and 52 grams of carbs, this small drink is not worth the heavy dose of calories.
The look: Surprise, Starbucks didn't win. It came close with one point separating the top two. It had a slightly grayish-brown hue, and a slick of oil on top, probably due to the homemade whipped cream that had, again, melted.
The taste: This hot chocolate tasted like "melted milk chocolate," said one taster. It smelled good, said another. It lost some points for texture with some thinking it was watery and slightly thinner. But overall, everyone would get this hot chocolate again.
Overall: Starbucks hot chocolate is by far the most natural with steamed milk, its signature mocha sauce, and housemade whipped cream.
The look: Dunkin' took the top honors in this taste test, which is stunning considering the ingredients. The first ingredient in Dunkin's hot chocolate is water, the second is the one that surprised us: hot chocolate powder. All of the other hot chocolates used fancy syrup, steamed milk, and whipped cream. The Dunkin' hot chocolate was the darkest of the four—probably because it used water— and looked the most like hot chocolate.
The taste: The thick texture and chocolatey flavor earned this cocoa top marks, though most admitted they would not be able to drink the whole thing, as it was very sweet.
Overall: Dunkin' won by a small margin, but it won nonetheless. Did Dunkin' win because it tastes like hot cocoa you'd have at home after a chilly walk in the snow? Maybe. All of the tasters commented that they didn't regularly drink hot chocolate, except in that very specific scenario—after a wintry walk—or when they didn't want coffee or tea. Dunkin' kept it simple and somehow unlocked that memory of drinking cocoa as a kid.