Chocolate lovers already have ample reasons to defend the addiction: antioxidant compounds present in the treat have many benefits, including improving age-related memory and relieving stress.
Now comes more research linking chocolate consumption to improved health, in this case the decreased risk of heart attack and dying from cardiovascular disease.
In a long-ranging study published earlier this week in the journal Heart, researchers tracked more than 20,000 adults living in or near Norfolk, England for an average of 12 years, making detailed notes on their diet, lifestyle and overall health throughout that time period.
The group was divided into categories based solely on self-reported chocolate consumption: those in the top-fifth consumed between 16 to 100 grams of chocolate a day, averaging about half a full-sized chocolate bar, while those on the bottom-fifth consumed almost no chocolate, averaging slightly more than a gram a day.
Here’s where it gets interesting: participants in the first, chocolate-loving group were 11 percent less likely to suffer from a heart attack or stroke and 25 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those in the group that ate little to no chocolate.
Of course, this doesn't mean that binging on chocolate is the key to a health heart. The connection between the treat and cardiovascular benefits is observational -- there could be other factors at play here. (Heavy chocolate consumers also had, on average, lower body-mass indexes, lower rates of diabetes and exercised more than their peers who largely stayed away from the stuff.)
What's particularly interesting is that while previous studies – some of which have also made the observational link between chocolate consumption and heart health – focused on flavonols, the antioxidant compounds found in the cocoa bean, the Heart study did make the distinction between grades of chocolate. Most of the chocolate consumed by participants was of the milk variety (and therefore likely sweetened with low levels of cocoa and thus low levels of flavonols) rather than antioxidant-packed dark chocolate.
It raises the question: Is chocolate's antioxidant component as important as previously thought? "Are we really chasing the right thing focusing on the flavonols?" Farzaneh Aghdassi Sorond, a neurologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston told The Los Angeles Times. "Or is there something else? Does chocolate consumption represent a socioeconomic status or some other kind of healthy factor? This paper underscores the issue we face."
In a few years, we should know more. A five-year, large-scale randomized controlled trial designed to test the effect of a concentrated cocoa extract on cardiovascular disease and cancer is slated to commence soon.