Disturbing Levels of Lead and Cadmium Found in Chocolate Products

A new Consumer Reports investigation found that one-third of chocolate products tested, including hot cocoa, dark chocolate, and cake mixes, contained "concerning levels" of lead and cadmium.

According to statistics, consumers in the United States have eaten an average of 20 pounds of chocolate per person so far this year. With the holidays approaching, consumption of chocolate in the form of candy bars, brownies, and hot cocoa is likely to rise.

While research suggests dark chocolate contains flavonoids and other bioactive compounds that may have health benefits, testing has found it can also contain not-so-healthy heavy metals.

For example, a previous Consumer Reports (CR) investigation found cadmium and lead in 28 popular dark chocolate bars. These findings led to a lawsuit involving Hershey Co. and a customer who claimed they would have never consumed specific dark chocolate bars if the company had disclosed the product's heavy metal levels.

Exposure to these metals can lead to a host of adverse health conditions, such as kidney disease, immune system suppression, and reproductive issues. Lead is particularly harmful to children as it can cause brain and nervous system damage and slow growth and development.

Cocoa, an ingredient in chocolate products, tends to have higher concentrations of these heavy metals. So, it's unsurprising that chocolate products with a high cocoa content, such as dark chocolate, contain detectable amounts of cadmium and lead.

However, other chocolate products, like milk chocolate bars, hot cocoa, and baked goods like cakes and brownies, may have different levels of heavy metals because of their varying cocoa concentrations.

Consumer Reports tests chocolate products

To widen the testing scope, Consumer Reports recently tested 48 different chocolate products for lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic. The product categories tested included dark chocolate, cocoa powder, chocolate chips, milk chocolate bars, brownie and chocolate cake mixes, and hot chocolate.

The CR scientists tested three samples of each product and averaged the results. When examining lead and cadmium, the team assessed whether one serving of each product would expose a person to levels above California's standard maximum allowable dose levels (MADL) in food. MADL levels for lead are 0.5 micrograms per day and 4.1 mcg per day for cadmium.

The testing found no significant levels of arsenic or mercury in the products.

However, one serving size of five out of seven dark chocolate bars tested had elevated lead or cadmium levels. For example, Sam's Choice (Walmart) Dark Chocolate 72% Cocoa had cadmium levels above CR's threshold.

In addition, the team found elevated lead levels in Divine 85% Exquisitely Smooth Dark Chocolate. However, Perugina 70% Premium Dark Chocolate and Perugina 85% Premium Dark Chocolate had the highest amount of lead.

What’s more, Evolved Signature Dark 72% Cacao Chocolate Bar contained elevated levels of lead and cadmium.

Notably, of the five milk chocolate bars tested, none were over the limit for either heavy metal.

Do other chocolate products contain lead and cadmium?

While none of the 12 chocolate chip products tested had high levels of cadmium, Hu Dark Chocolate Gems and Good & Gather (Target) Semi-Sweet Mini Chocolate Chips were over CR's limit for lead.

Chocolate chips that were relatively low in both metals include 365 Whole Foods Market Semi-Sweet Chocolate Baking Chips, Kirkland Signature Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips, and Nestlé Toll House Semi-Sweet Morsels.

Among cocoa powder products, none were high in cadmium. However, one serving of Hershey's Cocoa Naturally Unsweetened 100% Cacao contained lead at 125% above the threshold, and Droste Cacao Powder was 324% above CR's lead limits.

In contrast, testing revealed that Navitas Organics Organic Cacao Powder had the lowest levels of lead and cadmium.

After testing six hot chocolate mixes, CR found that Great Value (Walmart) Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa Mix was 345% above the limit for lead.

Starbucks Hot Cocoa Classic, Trader Joe's Organic Hot Cocoa Mix, and Nestlé Rich Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa Mix also had lead levels above the threshold.

However, Ghirardelli Premium Hot Cocoa Mix and Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa did not have heavy metal levels above CR's limit.

Among brownie and cake mixes tested, none were high in cadmium. However, one serving of Ghirardelli Premium Brownie Mix Double Chocolate had lead levels 108% above the limit, and Bob's Red Mill Gluten Free Chocolate Cake Mix contained lead at 218% above the cutoff.

Testing also found that Simple Mills Almond Flour Baking Mix - Chocolate Muffin & Cake contained lead at 127% above the limit.

What’s being done about heavy metals in chocolate?

"Every product we tested had detectable amounts of lead and cadmium," says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., the director and acting head of product safety testing at CR. "Sixteen of the 48 products had amounts above CR's levels of concern for at least one of the heavy metals — in some cases more than twice our limit — but we did find safer options in each category of chocolate products."

In response to Consumer Reports, Christopher Gindlesperger, senior vice president of public affairs and communications for the National Confectioners Association, said, "Chocolate and cocoa are safe to eat and can be enjoyed as treats, as they have been for centuries. Food safety and product quality remain our highest priorities, and we remain dedicated to being transparent and socially responsible."

The FDA told CR that while the media has brought attention to the presence of lead and cadmium in chocolate, experts worldwide have found that chocolate is a minor source of exposure to these contaminants.

Consumer Reports says they are pushing for chocolate companies to make changes to ensure their products contain fewer heavy metals.

Brian Ronholm, the director of food policy at Consumer Reports, said, "Earlier this year, a Hershey executive stated that the company continues to look for ways to remove more of the metals through additional cleaning and alternate sourcing. We would like them to honor that commitment."

In 2018, consumer advocacy group As You Sow and chocolate manufacturers agreed to resolve a dispute over whether specific levels of lead and cadmium in chocolate require warnings under California's stringent Proposition 65 law.

The settlement required a joint investigation of the primary sources of heavy metals in chocolate. According to As We Sow, the experts conducting the study will also recommend practical measures to reduce lead and cadmium in chocolate products.

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