- Twenty-three of 28 dark chocolate bars tested by Consumer Reports had high levels of cadmium or lead, a report by the consumer testing publication found. Five had high levels of both heavy metals.
- Brands that had more of the heavy metals included dark chocolates from Theo, a bar from Lily’s (owned by Hershey), a bar from Green & Black’s, and a Trader Joe’s branded dark chocolate bar, the report states. Offerings from Ghirardelli, Mast, Valrhona and Taza Chocolate had less of both cadmium and lead.
- Chocolate makers have long been aware of the cadmium and lead levels that can be present in dark varieties. Following litigation and a settlement reached four years ago, many are trying to reduce the amounts of heavy metals in their confections.
The presence of heavy metals in chocolate is not a new development. As You Sow, a shareholder advocacy group, brought the issue into the limelight in 2014.
The nonprofit conducted independent laboratory testing of more than 469 chocolate products for lead and cadmium. A total of 285 of those confections had lead or cadmium levels that were above the maximum allowable dose level for the heavy metals in California — 4.1 micrograms of cadmium and 0.5 micrograms of lead. As You Sow filed legal notices between July 2014 and November 2017 with many of the companies, accusing them of failing to warn California consumers of the heavy metals in their products.
The legal findings led to a settlement in which candy companies and the National Confectioners Association worked with As You Sow on a study to investigate and identify how the heavy metals got into products and come up with feasible ways for the sweets manufacturers to reduce contamination.
In August, the 381-page study about heavy metals in chocolate was released. The report pinpointed soil as the main source of cadmium in dark chocolate. The study noted that the heavy metal is more prevalent in Latin America and the Caribbean.
As You Sow and the National Confectioners Association determined cadmium could be reduced in the longer term by changing soil composition and tweaking tree genetics. In the short term, blending cocoa with higher and lower amounts of cadmium could reduce the total amount in confections.
The report found lead that gets into chocolate comes from the air — blown out of the soil, from air pollution, and from dust. It sticks to the white coating around cacao beans, which transforms them as the beans ferment. Taking care to cover the beans while fermenting, or cleansing them more deeply post-fermentation, were recommended as ways to reduce the presence of the heavy metal.
Consistent and long-term exposure to heavy metals has been linked to several health problems, including nervous system and immune system problems, hypertension, kidney damage and reproductive issues, the report said. For young children and fetuses in pregnant people, the exposure can lead to developmental problems.
The Consumer Reports study doesn’t mean necessarily that chocolate companies aren’t following the recommendations.
Toxicologist Michael DiBartolomeis, a former official at the California Department of Public Health and one of the authors of the study, told Consumer Reports it will take years to do some of the things needed to reduce cadmium levels in chocolates.
The 2018 settlement between As You Sow and the confectionery companies set mandatory annual testing and certification that looks at both how the chocolate is manufactured and how much cadmium and lead is in them.
In a statement about the Consumer Reports article from the National Confectioners Association, the group says chocolate is safe to eat.
“The products cited in this study are in compliance with strict quality and safety requirements, and the levels provided to us by Consumer Reports testing are well under the limits established by our settlement,” the statement says. “Food safety and product quality remain our highest priorities and we remain dedicated to being transparent and socially responsible."
While this issue has been well-known among confectioners for years, the Consumer Reports article may be the first time many consumers have heard of heavy metal contamination in dark chocolate. The article has a link to a petition asking chocolate companies to commit to reducing heavy metals in their products.
Even if the petition receives the signatures it is seeking, it’s unlikely it will have any effect. The companies already made this commitment four years ago through the court settlement. The biggest impact is likely to be on holiday gift-giving, with some consumers likely to buy edible gifts they see as less hazardous.