Chocolate lovers, rejoice.
Research at Cambridge University supports the theory that dark chocolate is, in fact, beneficial for one's health.
A systematic review of seven studies, compiled and published last month in the British Medical Journal, confirms that consumption of a moderate amount of chocolate reduced risk of heart disease by 37 percent and stroke by 29 percent, based on studies using data from 114,000 patients.
"Over the last several years, we have learned much more that we did not know about [chocolate] before," said Dr. Ondrej Lisy, a staff cardiologist at Chattanooga Heart Institute at Memorial Hospital.
Not all chocolate, however, has the same cardiovascular benefits, he said, emphasizing that dark chocolate, the less processed and the higher the amount of cacao the better, is the most beneficial.
The health benefit of dark chocolate is due to the presence of flavonoids, a large family of plant compounds that contain high amounts of antioxidants, substances that may protect your cells against the affects of free radicals, experts say. Free radicals can damage cells, experts believe, and may play a role in heart disease, cancer and other diseases.
According to Lisy, fruits with high flavonoid levels include apples and cranberries. They also can be found in red wine and green tea. The antioxidants, he said, particularly flavonoids, create a protective barrier against free radicals.
"They are working like scavengers to resist the damage caused by free radicals," he said.
Chocolate when consumed in a moderate amount -- about 7.5 grams a day -- can make effective use of the flavonoids contained within cacao. The recommended amount is equal to about one-quarter of an ounce, or about one-sixth of a standard Hershey's chocolate bar.
Cacao, the dried seed that is the basis of chocolate, is where the antioxidant powers lie.
"The more you process the cacao or the chocolate, the less flavonoids it will contain," said Lisy.
In other words, the higher the percent of cacao, the healthier the chocolate is. So learn to love your chocolate dark dark dark.
To get the benefits of the flavonoids, he said, aim to eat chocolate that is more than 60 percent cacao. Even a cup of hot chocolate, made with unprocessed cocoa powder, can be helpful.
Flavonoids also can be effective in lowering blood pressure by causing blood vessels to relax.
"Lowering the blood pressure by itself can lower the risk of stroke," said Lisy.
The flavonoids also help reduce low-density lipid cholesterol, the so-called "bad" cholesterol.
The benefits of dark chocolate, however, are most effective when it is consumed in moderation.
"You have to be careful, because if you eat a lot of chocolate, you may not be getting significant benefits," said Lisy. One square of dark chocolate, he noted, might have about 30 calories, which is not very significant, but many squares will be, so not eating the chocolate in moderation can mean the drawbacks, i.e. fat content, will outweigh the benefits.
However, he said, not all fat in chocolate is the unhealthy type.
Some patients also have concerns about caffeine in chocolate because of heart palpitations. But at about 28 milligrams of caffeine per ounce of dark chocolate, "this is really not much," Lisy said. A cup of coffee has 95 to 150 milligrams of caffeine.
Some scientists, he said, say drinking milk while eating dark chocolate can reduce the efficacy of the flavonoids by reducing absorption.
Which, of course, raises the question of how hot cocoa, often made with milk, can be beneficial.
"Something is better than nothing," he said. "But if I could choose, I would rather eat a square of dark chocolate and have milk before or a couple hours after."