August 30/Paris/Reuters -- Regular consumption of chocolate may slash the risk of developing heart disease by a third, according to research published in theBritish Medical Journal and presented at the European Society of Cardiology's conference in Paris. Chocolate has been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease before, but this study by researchers from the University of Cambridge looked into seven studies of nearly 114,000 people and found that people who consumed the most chocolate were 37% less likely to develop heart disease and 29% less likely to suffer a stroke than those who ate less chocolate. The researchers found no link between cocoa intake and heart failure.

"We found a potential link between chocolate consumption and prevention of heart disease," said lead researcher Dr. Oscar H. Franco, from the department of public health and primary care at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

"At this point we are in the early stages of research," he added. There have not been any clinical trials to see if this association is real, Franco noted.

Even though chocolate was beneficial, Franco said that people should not use the study as an excuse to go out and gorge themselves. If too much is consumed, the high sugar and fat content of chocolates may lead to weight gain, straining the heart and raising the risk of diabetes, he said.

 "If you are already eating chocolate, do it in moderation; if you are not eating chocolate, our advice is not to start eating chocolate," Franco said.

The study is still unclear on certain aspects regarding the health benefits of chocolate consumption. The quantity of chocolate that confers health benefits is still unclear, Franco said.

"We still need to clarify the quantity that permits chocolate to prevent heart disease," he said. "Given the amount of sugar and calories in chocolate, we don't think it's going to be a high quantity."

The study, which included the consumption of chocolate bars, drinks, biscuits and deserts, did not distinguish between dark chocolate and other sweeter goods like white chocolate or snack bars.  This makes the task of determining the most beneficial type of chocolate difficult.

Franco suspects that dark chocolate will turn out to be the beneficial type but said that needs to be confirmed.

Studies show that chocolate, which is produced from the seed of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree, contains many of the health benefits of dark vegetables. These benefits derive from flavonoids, which act as antioxidants. Antioxidants protect the body from aging caused by free radicals, which can cause damage that leads to heart disease. Dark chocolate contains a large number of antioxidants (nearly eight times the number found in strawberries). Flavonoids also help relax blood pressure through the production of nitric oxide and balance certain hormones in the body.

Cocoa beans contain healthy plant compounds like flavanols, called polyphenols, that act as powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, nutrition expert Samantha Heller told USA Today.

"But, and this is a big 'but,' people should not use this study as an excuse to chow down on candy bars, chocolate ice cream and chocolate cookies. This will pack on pounds and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease," Heller added.

"This paper merely shows us that the association between habitual intake of chocolate and lower cardiometabolic risk is 'statistically robust,'" Dr. David Katz, director of medical studies in public health at Yale University, told ABC News.  "But what if happier people eat more chocolate and are at lower cardiometabolic risk because they are happier? This paper cannot address such subtleties."

While the study was a "wonderful example of the opportunity to love food that loves us back," Katz cautioned that "too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing."


From the August 30, 2011, Prepared Foods' Daily News.