If you've been reading all those studies on the benefits of chocolate and salivating at the thought of milk-chocolating your way to health and longevity, you're going to be disappointed. But if you aren't a choco-holic and just want to know if it can help you stay heart healthy, there is good news.

6.7 grams of chocolate per day (that's 1/15th of a chocolate bar) represents the ideal amount for a protective effect against inflammation and subsequent cardiovascular disease, say the results of a population study being conducted by the Research Laboratories of the Catholic University in Campobasso in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute of Milan.

The findings, published the Journal of Nutrition, come from one of the largest epidemiological studies ever conducted in Europe, the Moli-sani Project, which has enrolled 20,000 inhabitants of the Molise region(1).

The researchers focused on the complex mechanism of inflammation. It is known a chronic inflammatory state represents a risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease, from myocardial infarction to stroke, and keeping the inflammation process under control has become a major issue for prevention programs and C-reactive protein turned out to be one of the most promising markers, detectable by a simple blood test.

The Italian team related the levels of this protein in the blood of examined people with their usual chocolate intake. Out of 11,000 people, researchers identified 4,849 subjects in good health and free of risk factors - they had normal cholesterol, blood pressure and other parameters. Among them, 1,317 did not eat any chocolate while 824 had chocolate regularly, but just the dark kind.

Romina di Giuseppe, lead author of the study, says, "We started from the hypothesis that high amounts of antioxidants contained in the cocoa seeds, in particular flavonoids and other kinds of polyphenols, might have beneficial effects on the inflammatory state. Our results have been absolutely encouraging: people having moderate amounts of dark chocolate regularly have significantly lower levels of C-reactive protein in their blood. In other words, their inflammatory state is considerably reduced."

The 17% average reduction observed may appear quite small, but it is enough to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease for one third in women and one fourth in men. It is undoubtedly a remarkable outcome."

Again, chocolate type and amounts are critical.

"We are talking of a moderate consumption. The best effect is obtained by consuming an average amount of 6.7 grams of chocolate per day, corresponding to a small square of chocolate twice or three times a week. Beyond these amounts the beneficial effect tends to disappear."

The common chocolate bar is 100 grams so less than half a bar of dark chocolate during the week may become a healthy habit.

What about the milk chocolate?

"Previous studies," he says, "have demonstrated that milk interferes with the absorption of polyphenols. That is why our study considered just the dark chocolate."

Researchers took into account that chocolate lovers might consume other healthy food too, such as wine, fruits and vegetables, or they may exercise more than other people do, so the positive effect might be ascribed to other factors but not to cocoa itself. "In order to avoid this," he says, "we 'adjusted' for all possible 'confounding' parameters. But the beneficial effect of chocolate still remained and we do believe it is real."

"This study," says Licia Iacoviello, Head of the Laboratory of Genetic and Environmental Epidemiology at the Catholic University of Campobasso and responsible for the Moli-sani Project, "is the first scientific outcome published from the Moli-sani Project. We consider this outcome as the beginning of a large se-ries of data which will give us an innovative view on how making prevention in everyday life, both against cardiovascular disease and tumors."

"Maybe," adds Giovanni de Gaetano, director of the Research Laboratories of the Catholic University of Cam-pobasso,"time has come to reconsider the Mediterranean diet pyramid and take the dark chocolate off the basket of sweets considered to be bad for our health."


(1)The Moli-sani Project, carried out by the Research Laboratories of the Center for High Technology Research and Education in Biomedical Sciences "John Paul II" at the Catholic University in Campobasso, started in March 2005 – funded by the Pfizer Foundation - aimed at recruiting 25,000 citizens living in the Molise region in order to investigate environmental and genetic factors responsible for cardiovascular disease and tumors. So far researchers have recruited more than 20,000 people and the final number will be reached by the end of 2008. The Moli-sani study is turning a whole Italian region turning into a large scientific laboratory. From clinical tests to electrocardiograms, from blood pressure to spirometry, from dietary habits to physical exercise: a huge amount of information is collected from each participant.