Chocoholics will be licking their lips at a study that shows their favourite food, chocolate, could have even more health benefits than they thought.

Researchers have found that high levels of chocolate consumption could cut a person’s chances of developing heart problems by more than one third. The findings follow previous studies touting chocolate’s ability to reduce blood pressure, improve brain function and lower cholesterol.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK reviewed seven studies to assess whether eating chocolate of any type reduced a person’s risk of developing disorders including stroke and heart failure, as well as diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

More than 114,000 people aged 25 to 93 from around the world munched their way through chocolate bars, drinks, biscuits, desserts and nutritional supplements for the studies.

What the researchers found would bring a smile to any chocolate lover’s face – people who ate large amounts of the sweet treat were 37 per cent less likely to have heart problems. “We found that high chocolate consumption was associated with about a third decrease in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders – 37 per cent in the case of any cardiovascular disease and 29 per cent in the case of stroke prevention,” researchers reported. No significant links were found between chocolate and heart failure.

According to the researchers, chocolate’s health benefits seemed to be linked to the high amounts of polyphenols in its key ingredient, cocoa. Polyphenols are a type of chemical which act as antioxidants and protect healthy cells from being damaged.
But before chocolate lovers reach for another family block, the researchers warn that their findings are no reason to overindulge. Noting the high number of kilojoules and fat in chocolate, they say that if people eat too much chocolate they risk putting on weight which, in turn, can cause heart problems.

Their warning is echoed by the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) and the National Heart Foundation of Australia. DAA spokeswoman Julie Gilbert says people should limit themselves to 20 grams or four small squares of chocolate a day.
“We don’t know why it’s so good for our heart and there’s more research to do. But for some people it makes them feel good and that’s an important thing because it may stop them from over-eating other things that contribute to weight gain like takeaways or doughnuts,” she says.

The Heart Foundation’s healthy weight director Susan Anderson says there are better ways to keep your heart healthy than eating chocolate. “The best way to get enough antioxidants is to eat a variety of plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruit, legumes, wholegrain breads and cereals as well as nuts and seeds every day,” she says.

The study has been published online by the British Medical Journal.