In the back-and-forth debate over whether chocolate is good for you or bad, a new study found people who regularly consume a reasonable amount of chocolate had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and strokes compared to people who didn't consume any.

In a study tracking almost 21,000 men and women, researchers discovered consuming as much as 3.5 ounces of chocolate daily was associated with a lowered risk of heart disease and stroke.

"The calculations showed that compared with those who ate no chocolate, higher intake was linked to an 11 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 25 percent lower risk of associated death," a statement of the journal Heart, which published the study, said.

The researchers were quick to emphasize they weren't suggesting everyone add daily chocolate to their diet, saying much more researcher should be undertaken.

"We don't yet know enough to put eating chocolate on a par with eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains," wrote Howard LeWine, chief medical editor of the Harvard University health blog, after reviewing the study.

Finding a link or association between chocolate and hearth health is not the same thing as proving a cause and effect, he pointed out.

"It's possible that people who like to eat chocolate do something else that offers heart protection, like eat a wide variety of healthful foods," he wrote.

Also, he points out, the new study is an observational study, where the researchers made statistical connections between the study participants' reported eating habits and their health. Only a randomized trial could prove a direct cause and effect, he says.

Still, experts note, the study joins a growing body of research suggesting bioactive plant compounds in cocoa beans, known as polyphenols, may provide some protection against heart disease.

"What we're learning is that polyphenols ... seem to improve the health of our blood vessels," says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Some other researchers say they're planning a large-scale clinical trials of polyphenols found in cocoa beans.

"We'll be testing them in a capsule form," says JoAnn Manson, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "So, [none of] the sugar, fat and calories" found in your typical candy bar, she says.

If you have a need or desire for chocolate, the experts suggest, stick to dark chocolate since it has more cocoa with its polyphenols and less of the sugar and milk found in milk chocolate.

And don't feel you need to suddenly shun chocolate, Manson says.

"Chocolate can be part of a healthy diet," she says.

ⓒ 2021 All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.