Digging into Chocolate: Worrisome Levels of Heavy Metals in Chocolate + 9 Brands with Safer Options

October 19, 2023

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I’m the girlfriend you text when you’re scratching your head reading labels in the grocery store, the confidante you blurt your “I can’t tell anyone else!” bathroom shenanigans to and the handy science nerd who comes through with the best cost-cutting, time-saving health tips you don’t know how you ever lived without.

heavy metals in chocolate

Mmm, le chocolat! One of my absolute favorite treats. There’s nothing quite like savoring a small piece of dark chocolate after a delicious lunch to complete my meal. However, my chocolate joy took a hit when I stumbled upon a report published by Consumer Reports, revealing that most chocolate brands contained potentially worrisome levels of lead and cadmium. Yikes! Although I had some prior knowledge about the presence of heavy metals in chocolate, the reported levels came as quite a shock.

So, what’s a dark chocolate enthusiast like myself to do? Should we all just swear off chocolate altogether? I’m not sure about you, but that doesn’t sound realistic to me. So, it got me wondering: how do heavy metals end up in chocolate? And what about fair-trade chocolates—are they also at risk?

As someone with a slight chocolate obsession who appreciates its delicious taste and welcomes its potential health benefits, I couldn’t let these questions go unanswered. So, here’s what I uncovered:

Heavy Metals in Chocolate

While chocolate boasts many health benefits, not all chocolates are free from potentially harmful contaminants. Some chocolates, especially those with high cocoa content (i.e., the ‘healthy’ ones), may contain concerning levels of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. These metals can find their way into chocolate during cocoa bean cultivation and the subsequent processing stages.

For instance, cadmium, a naturally occurring element commonly utilized in various industrial applications such as batteries, pigments, and metal coatings, can be found in cocoa and chocolate due to its presence in soils stemming from both natural and man-made sources. The soil contamination may arise from geological conditions, industrial activities, or the application of specific fertilizers. Cocoa plants, when cultivated in such cadmium-containing soils, have the capacity to absorb this element, subsequently incorporating it into the cocoa beans.

Chronic exposure to high levels of cadmium poses health risks, as it is a known carcinogen and has the potential for toxic effects on vital organs, including the kidneys and bones

On the other hand, lead contamination in chocolate products typically happens after the beans are harvested and dried, i.e., not absorbed through the soil. This contamination occurs during the subsequent stages, which involve the shipping of those beans and the manufacturing of cocoa and chocolate products. In short, higher levels of lead are often linked to the handling and processing methods rather than directly originating from the cocoa bean itself.

The primary concern with lead and cadmium in chocolate is long-term, excessive consumption, which can result in an accumulation of these heavy metals in the body. 

Assessing Chocolate for Contaminants

To determine the presence of heavy metals in chocolate, namely lead and cadmium, both Consumer Reports and As You Sow, an organization committed to advancing social and environmental corporate responsibility, employed independent measurement techniques to assess their levels.

Consumer Reports conducted tests on 28 dark chocolate bars to determine their levels of lead and cadmium, using California’s maximum allowable dose levels (MADL) for chemicals causing reproductive toxicity, as their benchmark. CR’s scientists chose California’s MADL standards, which are 0.5 micrograms for lead and 4.1 micrograms for cadmium per day, as they considered these levels to be the most protective available. However, it’s important to note that CR’s results indicate which products have comparatively higher levels of contaminants, but they are not assessments of whether a product exceeds a legal standard. This is because there are no federal limits for the amount of lead and cadmium most foods can contain. Unfortunately, according to CR’s reports using these standards, “they detected cadmium and lead in all of them,” with some showing troubling concentrations.

As You Sow followed a similar testing approach but on a larger scale, conducting independent laboratory testing of over 469 chocolate products for lead and cadmium. Their findings revealed that out of the 469 chocolate products tested 285 of them contained lead and/or cadmium concentrations exceeding California’s MADLs. Consequently, As You Sow initiated legal actions against more than 20 companies, including Trader Joe’s, Hershey’s, Mondelēz, Lindt, Whole Foods, Kroger, Godiva, See’s Candies, Mars, Theo Chocolate, Equal Exchange, Ghirardelli, and Chocolove. These actions were taken because these companies failed to inform consumers about the presence of cadmium, lead, or both in their chocolate products. 

It’s not all doom and gloom

However, it’s essential to clarify that many experts argue that the levels of these contaminants are generally well below the safety limits and considered safe for consumption and, when consumed in moderation, do not pose a health risk.

A general rule of thumb when consuming dark chocolate is to limit your dark chocolate intake to just a serving a few days a week. That sounds more realistic to me than omitting chocolate altogether! 

The Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate

My primary dilemma when confronted with the discovery of heavy metals in chocolate, specifically dark chocolate, is twofold: 1) my deep affection for chocolate and 2) the fact that dark chocolate offers an array of remarkable health benefits (when enjoyed in moderation, of course). I explore dark chocolate’s health benefits in “10 brain-healthy foods for cognitive health.”

The good news? According to The New York Times, research shows that you can reap the health benefits of dark chocolate simply by eating as little as one-third of an ounce per day, roughly equivalent to a small square or a single piece of bite-sized chocolate candy. 

Do Fair-Trade Chocolate Brands Contain Heavy Metals?

When it comes to selecting chocolate, I make a conscious effort to opt for the fair-trade option whenever possible. I understand that it may be slightly more expensive, and I know not everyone can make this choice, but when I can, I make an effort to choose fair-trade. Especially since, according to the research I am sharing with you here, I should be moderating the quantities of chocolate I eat anyway. 

Some of the reasons I like to support fair-trade:

  1. Fair trade ensures that cocoa farmers receive fair compensation for their hard work, aiding in poverty reduction and bettering their living conditions.
  2. Fair-trade standards prohibit child labor and foster initiatives for education and community development in cocoa-producing regions.
  3. Fair-trade practices frequently employ sustainable farming methods, which safeguard the environment, promote biodiversity, and reduce the use of harmful chemicals.

However, as As You Sow revealed in their investigation, even fair-trade chocolates contained trace amounts of lead and cadmium, sharing: “Lead and cadmium in food are ubiquitous and do not seem to discriminate between natural, certified organic, and non-organic products.”

So, while fair-trade standards champion fair wages, environmental sustainability, and various social benefits, they do not guarantee the absence of heavy metals in chocolate. Bummer. 

So, how are sustainable chocolate brands responding to these concerns?

A quick online search reveals that many sustainable chocolate brands have consistently prioritized product safety and quality control, a commitment they have upheld over time. They take pride in their unwavering dedication to maintaining the highest standards for their products.

For instance, when I conducted a basic Google search, I came across written statements from several fair-trade chocolate brands, all highlighting their rigorous safety and quality control measures.

Divine Chocolate assures consumers of the safety of their products, stating:

Our delicious chocolate is entirely safe to consume. Divine chocolate prioritizes food safety and product quality. We analyze our bars on a monthly basis for levels of various microbiological and chemical components, including cadmium, aluminum, lead, nickel, and copper. For all of our varieties, Divine Chocolate is fully compliant and exceeds ALL safety and quality standards — including those cited in the Consumer Reports study.  

Alter Eco Chocolate offers consumers peace of mind by affirming the safety of their products, stating:

We are aware of all legal and regulatory requirements applicable to our products, including California’s Proposition 65 law (the Law). Alter Eco works hard to follow the Law and implements good agricultural practices and the most responsible manufacturing practices. Before putting any product to market, we perform quality control measures that reduce the natural cadmium in our products to the lowest level currently feasible. By doing so, we ensure that the ingredients used in all our chocolate products are responsibly sourced and of the safest quality.

Theo Chocolate provides consumers with confidence in the safety of their products, assuring them that:

Theo is proud to source our cocoa beans through direct relationships with our sourcing partners and the farmers who grow and harvest our beans in the Eastern Congo. We are working with our sourcing partners in the region to review the results of the research as well so we can continue to develop our partnership with the existing communities who grow and harvest our cacao. As we explore improvements to our sourcing strategy to address this issue, we’ll stay true to the fair trade commitments that are core to our mission. As the research report mentions, these solutions do take time, but we are committed to implementing and measuring the effectiveness of these efforts. 

So where to go from here?

Although the presence of cadmium and lead in chocolate may be concerning, it’s reassuring to know that many chocolate products generally adhere to safe limits. If you’re a frequent chocolate consumer, consider visiting As You Sow’s website, which regularly monitors contaminant levels in chocolate. And, if you’re someone who enjoys chocolate regularly, such as I do, consider opting for chocolates with lower levels of contaminants.

In short, following Consumer Reports’ recommendations:

  • Practice moderation when indulging in dark chocolate.
  • Be mindful of kids’ dark chocolate consumption to reduce their exposure to potential lead and cadmium.
  • Consider chocolate with lower cocoa content, as it often contains fewer contaminants.
  • Keep in mind that contaminant levels can differ among products, even within the same brand.
  • Not all organic and fair trade chocolates are free of lead and cadmium

Basically, what I’ve learned through this deep dive on heavy metals in chocolate is that as long as you exercise moderation and make informed decisions, you can still savor dark chocolate. 

Safer Chocolate Brands You Can Enjoy 

Given the personal nature of our chocolate preferences, the approach to our chocolate consumption is a matter of individual choice. However, for those seeking chocolate brands that have been assessed as having lower levels of lead and cadmium, here is a list compiled from Consumer Reports and As You Sow’s research.

Again, it’s important to remember that while concerns about trace amounts of cadmium and lead in chocolate exist, most chocolate products remain within safe consumption limits when enjoyed in moderation.

Additionally, please note that not all products from each brand may necessarily have low levels of cadmium and lead, as contaminant levels can vary between different products.Furthermore, I’ve exclusively included sustainable brands in this list.

9 Sustainable Chocolate Options with Lower Heavy Metal Content

1. Chocolove Ginger Crystallized In Dark Chocolate with 65% Cocoa contains 0.3 micrograms of lead and 0.1 micrograms of cadmium per serving, as reported by As You Sow.

2. Divine 85% Dark Chocolate contains 0.5 micrograms (µg) of lead and 2.0 micrograms (µg) of cadmium per serving, as reported by As You Sow.

3. Endangered Species Natural Dark Chocolate, 72% cocoa, contains 0.4 micrograms of lead and 0.1 micrograms of cadmium per serving, as reported by As You Sow.

4. Equal Exchange Organic Fairly Traded Dark Chocolate Panama Extra Dark with 80% Cacao contains 0.3 micrograms of lead and 4.1 micrograms of cadmium per serving, as reported by As You Sow.

5. Guittard Nocturne Organic Bittersweet Chocolate Baking Wafers with 74% Cacao contain 0.2 micrograms of lead and 3.6 micrograms of cadmium per serving, as reported by As You Sow.

6. Mast Organic Dark Chocolate with 80% Cocoa contains 14% of the lead and 40% of the cadmium, as reported by Consumer Reports.

7. Ritter Sport Dark Chocolate with 81% Cacao Extra Intense, made with Cacao from Ghana, contains 0.3 micrograms of lead and 1.8 micrograms of cadmium per serving, as reported by As You Sow.

8. Taza Organic Deliciously Dark Chocolate with 70% Cacao contains 33% of the lead and 74% of the cadmium levels, as reported by Consumer Reports.

9. Valrhona Abinao Dark Chocolate with 85% Cacao contains 63% of the lead and 73% of the cadmium levels, as reported by Consumer Reports.

Want to learn more?

To learn more about the steps chocolate manufacturers can take to reduce levels of heavy metals in chocolate or to learn more about this issue, check out the following resources:

The Wise Consumer

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