There may be potentially harmful amounts of heavy metals in a wide range of chocolate products; not only in dark chocolate, but also in milk chocolate cocoa powders, brownie mixes, and chocolate chips, according to new research from Consumer Reports.
Researchers at the organization measured levels of lead and cadmium in 48 products, including:
- Cocoa powder
- Chocolate chips
- Milk chocolate bars
- Brownie and cake mixes
- Hot chocolate
These products came from some larger brands, like Hershey’s, Nestlé, and Ghirardelli; smaller brands like Droste and Navitas; and were sold at national retailers such as Costco, Trader Joe’s, Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods.
As expected based on earlier testing, dark chocolate products tended to have higher levels of heavy metals than milk chocolate, the new research found.
“But every product we tested had detectable amounts of lead and cadmium,” said James Rogers, PhD, the director and acting head of product safety testing at Consumer Reports, in a statement. “Sixteen of the 48 products had amounts above Consumer Reports’ 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.”
How Much Lead and Cadmium Is Present in Your Favorite Chocolate?
For the new analysis, scientists tested chocolate products to see how many had more than the maximum dose levels allowed in California, where environmental and safety regulations are often stricter than those set by the U.S. federal government. In California, the maximum daily allowable doses are 0.5 micrograms (mcg) for lead and 4.1 mcg for cadmium; there are no federal limits for these heavy metals in most foods, according to Consumer Reports.
Five of the seven dark chocolate bars tested for the new report were above these maximum daily levels for lead, cadmium, or both. That’s similar to results scientists got when they tested a different mix of dark chocolate bars last year.
One product, Evolved Signature Dark 72 Percent Cacao Chocolate Bar, was over the limit for both lead and cadmium, and just an ounce would be more than the daily maximum exposure for these heavy metals, according to Consumer Reports.
Sam’s Choice Dark Chocolate 85 Percent Cocoa, and Divine 70 Percent Deliciously Smooth Dark Chocolate were below the limit for both lead and cadmium.
Lead and cadmium levels were lower than the daily limit per ounce for all five milk chocolate bars tested. These included: Lindt Classic Recipe Milk Chocolate Bar; Feastables Mr. Beast Bar Milk Chocolate; 365 Whole Foods Market Organic Milk Chocolate; Chocolove Milk Chocolate; and Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar.
None of the chocolate chips tested had high cadmium levels, and just two — Hu Dark Chocolate Gems and Good & Gather Semi-Sweet Mini Chocolate Chips — were over the limit for lead. The caveat here is that these all had a serving size of about half an ounce, or 1 tablespoon (tbsp), roughly the amount in just one or two cookies.
Similarly, none of the cocoa powders tested were high in cadmium, and just two — one from Hershey’s and one from Droste — had high lead levels. But serving sizes were just 1 tbsp.
Four of the six hot cocoa mixes tested came in high for lead or cadmium. The two products that were below the limit for both heavy metals were Ghirardelli Premium Hot Cocoa Mix and Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa.
All but one of the six brownie mixes were below the limit for heavy metals. Ghirardelli Premium Brownie Mix Double Chocolate was high in lead.
Four of the six cake mixes tested were below the limit for heavy metals. Two of them — Simple Mills Almond Flour Baking Mix Chocolate Muffin & Cake and Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Chocolate Cake Mix — were high in lead.
Why Are Cadmium and Lead Bad for People? How Do They End Up in Chocolate?
Cadmium is a mineral naturally found in the earth’s crust. It’s also found in cigarette smoke and used in a wide range of consumer and industrial products, including batteries, pigments, metal coatings, and plastics. People are exposed to cadmium through a variety of foods they eat and through breathing contaminated air. Cadmium can cause vomiting and diarrhea when ingested, while inhalation can cause kidney damage, fragile bones, and certain cancers.
Lead is also found naturally in the earth’s crust. It’s been banned in gasoline and paints in the United States, but it is still used in a wide variety of metal mixtures and industrial products, including ammunition, older pipes, car radiators, glass, and pottery. People can be exposed to lead through the air, by consuming contaminated food or beverages, or swallowing dust or dirt containing lead. Health risks are most pronounced for young children, who can suffer developmental and cognitive problems from lead exposure.
Cadmium and lead end up in chocolate in a variety of ways. Cadmium is actually present in the soil where cacao beans grow, so it’s taken up into the plant itself as it grows. And lead-filled dust seems to cover the beans after they’ve been picked and while they’re drying in the sun.
How Worried Do I Need to Be About Heavy Metals in Chocolate?
Consumers don’t need to give up chocolate altogether as long as they consume it in moderation, says Luz Claudio, PhD, a professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, who wasn’t involved in the study.
The best approach, Dr. Claudio says, is to eat a balanced diet with a variety of foods, including occasional sweets. “The most important components of a balanced diet are the consumption of fruits and vegetables with some lean proteins.”
In addition, while it’s true that heavy metals can be present in a wide variety of chocolate products, the nutritionist Toby Amidor, RD, points out that heavy metals are present in other foods, too.
“Other foods actually have more cadmium, including leafy greens, whole grains, and potatoes, because they get it from the soil,” she says. “However, you don’t hear any concern about those foods — and as a dietitian those are foods I recommend to keep in a healthy diet.”
“Eating the recommended one ounce of dark chocolate every so often isn’t likely to be harmful,” she adds, “or even if you eat a whole bar.”