Moderate amounts of dark chocolate may help improve health, by stimulating muscle response in a similar way to exercise, new research suggests.

Epicatechin, a plant compound found in chocolate, was found to stimulate a muscle response to produce more mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses in cells that generate energy.

''Mitochondria produce energy which is used by the cells in the body. More mitochondria mean more energy is produced and more work can be performed, said Dr. Moh Malek of Wayne State University in Detroit, who led the U.S. study on mice. Aerobic exercise, such as running or cycling, is known to increase the number of mitochondria in muscle cells. Our study has found that epicatechin seems to bring about the same response, particularly in the heart and skeletal muscles.''

To carry out research, a set of mice was given a specific type of epicatechin twice a day over 15 days. At the same time, a different set of mice underwent treadmill training.

It was found that the mice that were fed epicatechin had the same exercise performance as those running on the treadmill.

The findings, published in the Journal of Physiology, may offer new ways to combat age-related muscle wasting.

''The number of mitochondria decreases in skeletal muscle as we age, and this affects us physically in terms of both muscle energy production and endurance,'' said Malek. ''Applying what we know about epicatechin's ability to boost mitochondria numbers may provide an approach to reduce the effects of muscle ageing.''

It appears epicatechin treatment combined with exercise could be a viable means to offset muscle aging,'' Malek continued. ''At the moment it would be a leap of faith to say the same effects would be seen in humans. But it is something we hope to identify in future studies.''