New research has found that devoted consumers of chocolate – including some who eat the equivalent of about two standard candy bars a day – are 11 percent less likely than those who eat little to no chocolate to have heart attacks and strokes, and 25 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease.

A long-running British study that tracked nearly 21,000 adults in and around Norfolk, England, for an average of 12 years, making frequent surveys of their consumption habits, lifestyles and health. Those in the top one-fifth of chocolate consumers reported eating the equivalent of about a half an American-size candy bar; those whose chocolate consumption landed them in the bottom 20th percentile averaged only 1.1 gram per day.

Those in the highest chocolate-consuming group not only had lower rates of heart attack and stroke, but also had, on average, lower body-mass indexes, lower systolic blood pressure and inflammation, and lower rates of diabetes. They also tended to exercise more.

The study was published Monday in the BMJ journal Heart.

The Norfolk authors also compiled the findings of nine other such studies – a so-called meta-analysis reflecting the outcomes of 159,809 people – to provide further context for their findings.

That meta-analysis found that compared with chocolate abstainers, heavy chocolate consumers were 25 percent less likely to suffer a wide range of cardiovascular illnesses and 45 percent less likely to die from them.

Dr. Farzaneh Aghdassi Sorond of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston said it’s time for such observational studies to give way to trials to determine whether it is chocolate or something else that comes with a chocolate-eating life that makes people healthier. And if it is chocolate, what specifically about it confers better health.

“Causality is the issue that remains unanswered and that’s going to have to be explored through clinical trials and interventions,” said Sorond, whose research has shown that when elderly people at high risk of stroke and dementia were given high quantities of cocoa to consume, the blood flow to their brains improved.

Sorond noted that the British authors did little to distinguish grades of chocolate. Much of what was reported consumed appears to have been milk chocolate, which contains low levels of the plant flavonoids in cocoa that many researchers have focused on as chocolate’s beneficial ingredient.

That makes the findings all the more perplexing, she said, because “the brown stuff that is sweet doesn’t necessarily have any chocolate in it.”