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Moderate Amounts May Help Heart Health and More, Researchers Find

March 29, 2012 (San Diego) -- Chocolate is increasingly shedding its reputation as a sweet treat only. More research is uncovering health benefits when the dark stuff is eaten in moderation.

At the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society here, a three-hour symposium was devoted to cocoa science and technology. Cocoa researchers from around the world gathered to share their latest findings, passing chocolate bars around the audience as they talked science.

Here is an update on questions chocolate lovers may have.

What can chocolate do for your heart health?

While some heart benefits of chocolate are solid, others are still under debate, says Eric Ding, PhD, instructor of medicine and nutritional epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School. At the symposium, he discussed his review of 24 published studies on chocolate.

The studies included more than 1,100 people. Researchers looked at how their chocolate-eating habits affected their heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure.

"The blood pressure-lowering effect is well known," he says. His team found that, on average, systolic blood pressure declined slightly, less than two points on average, in chocolate eaters. Systolic blood pressure is the top number of a blood pressure measurement, and in people older than 50, this can be a stronger risk factor for heart disease than the lower, or diastolic, measurement.

There is also solid evidence that chocolate can increase HDL or "good" cholesterol, Ding and his colleagues found. In general, the lower your LDL and the higher your HDL, the better your chances of preventing heart disease and other chronic conditions.

With chocolate, insulin resistance improved, a benefit if you have diabetes or want to avoid it, Ding says.

Blood flow also improved with a bit of chocolate, another benefit, he says.

"Altogether the results suggest strong benefits against cardiovascular disease," Ding tells WebMD.

The report is published in The Journal of Nutrition.

What else can chocolate do?

Other studies on the health benefits of chocolate are in earlier phases and are preliminary.

Chocolate may help those with type 2 diabetes minimize the ill effects of high blood sugar levels after eating, says Stephen L. Atkin, MD, a researcher at the Hull York Medical School in the U.K. He gave 10 patients with type 2 diabetes small amounts of chocolate an hour before he gave them glucose to simulate a meal.

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