Even Milk Chocolate Is Good For You, According To New Study

06/16/2015 11:46 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015
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Chocolate is good for your heart — sort of, maybe.

Eating up to 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of chocolate daily is linked with lowered risks of heart disease and stroke, scientists reported today (June 15) in the journal Heart. That amount of chocolate is equal to about 22 Hershey's Kisses, two Hershey bars or two bags of M&M's, depending on how you want to divvy up this good news.

"There does not appear to be any evidence to say that chocolate should be avoided in those who are concerned about cardiovascular risk," the researchers concluded in their paper. Their new study is based on a meta-analysis of eight previously published studies involving a total of nearly 158,000 people.

One key finding was that people who ate chocolate regularly had up to an 11 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and a 23 percent lower risk of having a stroke, compared with nonchocolate eaters. (Yes, remarkably, they exist.)

However, the analysis comes with more caveats than Almond Joy has nuts. For example, exactly what it is about chocolate that might impart health benefits is not clear. The scientists could not determine a cause-and-effect relationship between the two, and the observed benefits might be nothing more than a mirage, a limitation of the study design. [5 Wacky Things That Are Good for Your Health]

"There is, of course, a theoretical plausible explanation of why eating chocolate in moderation may expose some [people] to compounds — for example, flavonols — which are potentially good for risk reduction through cholesterol- and blood-pressure-lowering effects," said Dr. Phyo Myint, a senior author of the study and a professor at the University of Aberdeen School of Medicine and Dentistry in Scotland.

Myint cited numerous studies demonstrating that flavonols — which are found in many plant-based foods, including cocoa — can lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain, and make blood platelets less sticky and less likely to clot and cause a stroke.

But the majority of the participants in the eight studies in the new analysis got their chocolate by eating milk chocolate, which has considerably lower levels of flavonols than dark chocolate. This left the researchers to speculate that milk components in the chocolate — namely, calcium and fatty acids — may explain the observed effect.

There are, however, several other plausible explanations for the results that would suggest that eating a lot of chocolate isn't necessarily healthy, the researchers admitted. For example, the people in the study who ate the most chocolate — more than 100 grams daily — were younger adults, who tend not to have heart problems.

Similarly, the researchers said the finding might be due to "reverse causation," meaning that the people with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease avoid eating chocolate, while those who are healthier eat more. The researchers also noted that consuming too much candy and other high-calorie, sugary foods could lead to dental cavities, obesity and diabetes.

Although the risk reduction linked with chocolate consumption was statistically significant, the benefits are not particularly striking compared with those of other dietary practices associated with heart health. For example, outside the context of chocolate, the risk of developing heart disease for these participants given their age was 14.4 percent, on average, Myint said. Therefore, reducing this risk by 11 percent would lower the heart disease risk to 12.8 percent.

The study could not differentiate between the types of milk chocolate consumed, and this could have health implications as well. Myint's hometown of Aberdeen is where people devised the now infamous deep-fried Mars bar, he said.

"The key is only to have moderate consumption [of chocolate] and ensure one does not exceed the calorie intake recommended for their height or weight," Myint told Live Science.

Follow Christopher Wanjek @wanjek for daily tweets on health and science with a humorous edge. Wanjek is the author of "Food at Work" and "Bad Medicine." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on Live Science.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • 1 It Reduces Stroke Risk
    A 2011 Swedish study found that women who ate more than 45 grams of chocolate a week had a 20 percent lower risk of stroke than women who treated themselves to fewer than 9 grams of the sweet stuff.
  • 2 It Boosts Heart Health
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    Regular chocolate eaters welcome a host of benefits for their hearts, including lower blood pressure, lower "bad" LDL cholesterol and a lower risk of heart disease. One of the reasons dark chocolate is especially heart-healthy is its inflammation-fighting properties, which reduce cardiovascular risk.
  • 3 It Fills You Up
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    Because it's rich in fiber, dark chocolate can actually help keep you full, so you'll eat less, Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center and HuffPost blogger told The Huffington Post. Regular chocolate eaters might do themselves a favor by treating themselves to a bite instead of snacking on "11 other things first" he said. Dark chocolate does the trick much better than milk, according to a small study from the University of Copenhagen, and may even reduce cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods.
  • 4 It May Fight Diabetes
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    A small Italian study from 2005 found that regularly eating chocolate increases insulin sensitivity, thereby reducing risk for diabetes.
  • 5 It Protects Your Skin
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    Forget what you've heard about chocolate causing breakouts: Dark chocolate is actually good for your skin. The type of antioxidants called flavonoids found in dark chocolate offer some protection from UV damage from the sun. And no, that does not mean you can skip the sunscreen!
  • 6 It Can Quiet Coughs
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    Can't stop coughing? An ingredient in chocolate called theobromine seems to reduce activity of the vagus nerve, the part of the brain that triggers hard-to-shake coughs. In late 2010, the BBC reported that scientists were investigating creating a drug containing theobromine to preplace cough syrups containing codeine, which can have risky side effects.
  • 7 It Boosts Your Mood
    There's no denying that indulging your sweet tooth every once in a while feels great. Enjoying food is part of enjoying life, points out HuffPost Healthy Living's wellness editor, Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald. Chocolate eaters also report feeling less stressed.
  • 8 It Improves Blood Flow
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    Cocoa has anti-clotting, blood-thinning properties that work in a similar way to aspirin, Dr. Fitzgerald writes, which can improve blood flow and circulation.
  • 9 It Improves Vision
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    Because of chocolate's ability to improve blood flow, in particular to the brain, researchers at the University of Reading hypothesized in a small 2011 study that chocolate may also increase blood flow to the retina, thereby giving vision a boost.
  • 10 It May Make You Smarter
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    That boost of blood flow to the brain created by cocoa's flavanols seems to make people feel more awake and alert, and, in a small British study, perform better on counting tasks.
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