It is one of life’s guilty pleasures.
But occasionally tucking into a bar of chocolate may actually be good for us, research suggests.
Scientists found moderate consumption - up to three bars a month - cut a person’s risk of heart failure by 13 per cent.
Heart failure affects more than 900,000 people in Britain - and nearly a third die within a year of diagnosis.
Researchers believe natural compounds in chocolate called flavonoids boost blood vessel health and help reduce inflammation.
But they urged moderation - eating chocolate is only healthy if you do it occasionally, because the sugar and fat means more frequent consumption does more harm than good.
Those who eat chocolate daily see their risk of heart failure increase by 17 per cent, they found.
Lead researcher Dr Chayakrit Krittanawong, from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, said: ‘I believe that chocolate is an important dietary source of flavonoids which are associated with reducing inflammation and increasing good cholesterol.
‘Most importantly, flavonoids can increase nitric oxide [a gas which widens blood vessels and boosts circulation].
‘However, chocolate may have high levels of saturated fats. Therefore, moderate consumption is recommended at this moment.’ The study, presented at the European Society of Cardiology conference in Munich, looked at five studies involving more than 575,000 individuals.
Dr Krittanawong believes dark chocolate is the most healthy, because it contains the most flavonoids and least sugar.
But he added: ‘To make definite recommendations, we will need randomized clinical trials to compare between dark chocolate group and non-dark chocolate group.’ Victoria Taylor, senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, said cocoa had been linked to a variety of health benefits.
She said: ‘This large-scale analysis suggests that enjoying a moderate amount of chocolate might protect you against heart failure, but too much can be detrimental.
‘If you have a sweet tooth, make it an occasional small treat and go for dark chocolate with the highest cocoa content.’ A previous study by the universities of Aberdeen, Manchester, Cambridge and East Anglia found people who regularly eat chocolate are 11 per cent less likely to have a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular problems.
But critics have consistently pointed out these studies may be skewed because people with a high risk of heart disease are more likely to steer clear of chocolate - so those who regularly eat the food might already be healthier.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.