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Chocolate tied to big drop in heart disease risk

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(CBS) What's the secret to a healthy heart? A new study suggests it might be chocolate - and lots of it.

Previous research has linked chocolate to heart-healthy benefits including reduced blood pressure, "bad" LDL cholesterol, and plaque formation on the arteries. But those studies didn't look at hard measurements, like how many heart attacks and strokes are reduced in chocolate-eaters.

So the new study - published in the August 29 issue of the British Medical Journal - set out to find evidence to back up these claims in a large scale analysis of seven studies involving more than 100,000 people without heart disease.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge in Egland found five of the studies showed high levels of chocolate consumption reduced heart disease risks - studies in which participants ate the most chocolate were linked to a 37 percent reduction in heart disease, and 29 percent reduction in stroke compared to studies in which participants ate the least amount. There was no way to know much chocolate was eaten by those who ate the most, the authors wrote, but eating it regularly seemed to be a factor.

The study did not differentiate between dark or milk chocolate, and also included candy bars and other desserts. Which raises the question - how does one volunteer to be in these studies?

The authors stress that more research is needed to see the amount of chocolate consumed causes this reduction, or if it's explained by another factor. Also, some kinds of chocolate are high in calories, so eating too much could cause weight gain and up diabetes and other disease risks.

"You should eat chocolate in a moderate way and in a regular manner," study author Dr. Oscar Franco, a professor of public health at the University of Cambridge, told Bloomberg.

Other experts raised concern over the findings.

"If you want to reduce your heart disease risk, there are much better places to start than at the bottom of a box of chocolates," Victoria Taylor, spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation, told Reuters.

The Cleveland Clinic has more on chocolate and cardiovascular health.