The new study suggests consuming up to 100 g of chocolate - including milk chocolate - each day is linked to a lower heart disease and stroke risk.
The flavonoid antioxidants in dark chocolate have long been hailed for their supposed beneficial effect in protecting against certain conditions. One study published last year suggested eating chocolate could prevent obesity and diabetes.
And another suggested eating dark chocolate in moderation could be good for the heart.
Though dark chocolate has previously been identified as having protective properties against cardiovascular disease, until now, there have not been any large-scale intervention studies to assess the potential benefits of dark and milk chocolate.
Findings from the latest research - which also investigates potential health benefits of milk chocolate - come from the EPIC-Norfolk study, which follows men and women in Norfolk, England, using food frequency and lifestyle questionnaires. The results are published in the journal Heart.
In addition to the EPIC study, the team also conducted a systematic review of all available published evidence on links between chocolate and cardiovascular disease (CVD), which involves almost 158,000 people internationally.
Higher chocolate intake linked to more health benefits
Of the study participants, 20% said they did not eat any chocolate, while the others had an average daily consumption of 7 g. Some even ate up to 100 g each day.
The researchers found that people who ate higher levels of chocolate typically had a younger age; lower weight, waist-to-hip ratio, systolic blood pressure and inflammatory proteins; less incidence of diabetes and more physical activity. All of these add up to a "favorable" CVD risk profile.
Additionally, eating more chocolate was linked with higher energy intake and a diet that consisted of more fat and carbs, and less protein and alcohol.
Importantly, compared with those who did not eat any chocolate, the people who ate more chocolate had an 11% lower risk of CVD and a 25% lower risk of associated death. They also had a 9% lower risk of hospital admission or death resulting from coronary heart disease and a 23% lower risk of stroke.
Results also showed that among those whose inflammatory protein level was measured, those who ate the most chocolate had an 18% lower risk than those who ate the least.
The systematic review likewise found a significantly lower risk of both stroke and CVD in people who regularly ate chocolate, and there was also a 25% lower risk of any episode of CVD and a 45% lower risk of associated death.
Health benefits from milk chocolate, too
Though the results are significant and the sample size is very large, there are certain limitations to this study, the researchers say. Because this was an observational study, they cannot draw conclusions about cause and effect.
Food frequency questionnaires - which were used in the study - always involve recall bias and underestimation of what was eaten, particularly among women and obese participants. Their results could also be explained by reverse causation, specifically where those with a higher CVD risk eat less chocolate than those who are healthier.
The researchers still conclude that their "evidence suggests that higher chocolate intake is associated with a lower risk of future cardiovascular events."
Plus, individuals who prefer milk chocolate over dark chocolate can also feel good about the study's results, as the EPIC-Norfolk participants ate milk chocolate more often than dark chocolate, which suggests beneficial effects may arise from eating this type of chocolate.
Commenting on this aspect of the study, the researchers say:
"This may indicate that not only flavonoids, but also other compounds, possibly related to milk constituents, such as calcium and fatty acids, may provide an explanation for the observed association."
But before running out to stock up on chocolate, it should be noted that the researchers say "there is a balance between benefit and risk with chocolate intake, which is dependent on the risk profile of the individual, including baseline weight and dose of chocolate intake."
Last year, Medical News Today reported on the health benefits of chocolate.