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It turns out chocolate, like aspirin, affects the platelets that cause blood to clot, Diane Becker of the Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine and her colleagues discovered.
"What these chocolate offenders taught us is that the chemical in cocoa beans has a biochemical effect similar to aspirin in reducing platelet clumping, which can be fatal if a clot forms and blocks a blood vessel, causing a heart attack," Becker said in a telephone interview.
Researchers ran platelet samples from both groups through a mechanical blood vessel system designed to time how long it takes for the platelets to clump together in a hair-thin plastic tube.
The blood of the chocolate eaters was slower to clot than the blood of the volunteers who resisted chocolate, Becker told a meeting of heart experts in Chicago.
In a urine test, the chocolate lovers had lower levels of a platelet waste product called thromboxane.
"Does it help a little bit? Yes," Becker said. "But it does not have anywhere near the magnitude of the effects of a single baby aspirin a day."
Nonetheless, Becker's team wants to study the effects of eating chocolate on a "free-living" population of volunteers. They will measure how much chocolate people eat and then watch them for several years to see if chocolate-eaters have a different rate of heart attacks, stroke and heart operations.
Other studies have suggested that dark chocolate contains more of the beneficial compounds linked with heart health, and experts note that the high sugar and fat content of most chocolate candy might cancel out some of the benefits.