Chocolate lovers are unlikely ever to need encouragement to indulge, but just in case, here's some good news: researchers have found that higher levels of chocolate consumption have been associated with a 37% reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, 31% reduction in diabetes and a 29% reduction for stroke.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge in the UK analyzed the results of seven studies involving more than 114,000 participants. The studies looked at consumption of both dark and milk chocolate and included chocolate bars, chocolate drinks and chocolate snacks.

Previous research has shown that cocoa and cacao products appear to have a positive antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect on heart health. The Cambridge analysis found a significant association between increased consumption of these products and reduced risk for any cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes.

Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death worldwide and according to World Health Organisation estimates will kill nearly 23.6 million people by 2030. Metabolic syndrome, associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, affects about one fifth of the world's adult population.

However, these diseases are largely preventable through lifestyle changes including diet, and chocolate may provide a convenient and popular way of helping prevent these illnesses when more is understood about its effect on our health. Chocolate may also be a valuable preventive in the developing world which is experiencing epidemics of cardiometabolic diseases, especially as most cacao production takes place in these countries but the processed product is not readily available.

Of course, most commercially available chocolate contains high levels of sugar and fat which can contribute to weight gain, hypertension, diabetes and other diseases. Ways of reducing these unhealthy elements, while retaining an acceptable taste, need to be explored to make chocolate healthier.

So to the inevitable caveat ... until there are guidelines on how much chocolate should be consumed, how often and in what form, moderation is still recommended.

The research was presented at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress in Paris and has been published in the British Medical Journal.