The Hershey Company has established a "Centre for Health and Nutrition" in the US to research the health benefits of eating chocolate.

The centre forms as Yale University research shows a link between the consumption of hot cocoa and improved cardiovascular function. 

Its formation follows a recommendation by Hershey's Health & Wellness Advisory Board, which was established last year.

The company introduced Hershey's Sticks, a portion-controlled chocolate with 60 calories per serving, earlier this year and has plans to launch a line of 100-calorie chocolate products.

The Hershey Centre for Health and Nutrition will direct "cutting-edge" scientific research to develop products and technologies in the areas of heart health, weight management, and mental and physical energy said the company.

Hershey senior vice president and chief global growth officer Tom Hernquist, said: "Our goal is to redefine the future of snacking by offering consumers products that provide proven health benefits and the superior taste they expect from Hershey.

"Our research is validating the significant health benefits of cocoa and snack nuts and, combined with our proven ability to develop and commercialise innovative new products, provides an immense capability to meet the growing consumer demand for healthier products."

Hershey also announced that preliminary results of a Yale University study confirm the cardiovascular health benefits of hot cocoa consumption, resulting in measurable improvements to arterial function.

It was found that regular hot cocoa and sugar-free hot cocoa resulted in improved blood flow within two hours of consumption.

Hershey senior nutrition scientist Debra Miller said: "The study provides more evidence on the positive benefits of hot cocoa. We're extremely encouraged by these results as we continue to conduct research into the positive health benefits of cocoa powder and dark chocolate."

Past scientific studies have shown that specific naturally occurring compounds from cocoa beans called flavanols may deliver health benefits. Flavanols can act as antioxidants and are also found in tea, fruits and vegetables.