Two separate recent studies found high amounts of cadmium and lead—two toxic heavy metals—in big name dark and milk chocolate brands, but experts believe chocolate can still be safely consumed within moderation.
A December Consumer Reports study tested the amount of heavy metals in 28 dark chocolates and found cadmium and lead in all of them—Trader Joe’s and Hershey chocolates had the highest levels of both metals.
As You Sow released a report that tested lead and cadmium levels in 22 milk chocolates and found three with higher levels of either metal (Hershey accounted for two of the chocolates).
Cadmium is an extremely toxic, malleable, soft metal used in products like batteries, plastics and pigments, and is found in cigarette smoke, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Lead is a naturally occurring, toxic element found in the Earth’s crust and can be found in soil, water, the air and in homes, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Both heavy metals are found in cacao beans—what chocolate is made from—but dark chocolate has higher levels of the metals than milk chocolate because it has a higher concentration of cocoa.
Heavy metals are found in other foods—a Nature study found levels of cadmium and lead in several fruits and vegetables like frozen strawberries and frozen raspberries; fresh beetroots; frozen carrots and frozen tomatoes; sweet potatoes and spinach.
The Consumer Reports study recommends treating chocolate as a treat, eating it every so often. “Having a serving a few days a week, especially with a product that has lower levels, means you can eat dark chocolate without worrying unduly,” Tunde Akinleye, a researcher over the study, said.
According to the National Confectioners Association—which represents chocolate manufacturers mentioned in both studies like Hershey, Lindt, Mars, Frankford, Godiva and Ghirardelli— “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 company said, in reference to the Consumer Reports study. Following a suit As You Sow brought against top chocolate brands for the presence of heavy metals in chocolate, the parties reached a settlement in 2018.
$2.5 billion. That’s how much chocolate was bought during the 2022 Valentine’s Day season, contributing to over half of the $4.1 billion spent on Valentine’s candy. Chocolate sales grew by 8.7% from the 2021 Valentine’s Day season.
HEALTH RISKS OF HEAVY METALS
According to the Consumer Reports study, eating an ounce a day of 23 of the dark chocolates tested would put an adult over the limit public health officials deem safe for consumption, though it’s “unlikely to cause any immediate harm.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn eating large amounts of cadmium can cause vomiting and diarrhea, and long-term exposure can lead to cancer, kidney issues, reproductive issues, nervous system problems or even death. Certain levels of lead are allowed in specific foods based on measures put in place by the Food and Drug Administration (i.e. if young children will consume the product). Children and pregnant people are the most vulnerable to heavy metals. Exposure to heavy metals in children has been linked to lower IQ scores, behavioral problems and an increased chance of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism. For pregnant people, heavy metal exposure can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth or birth defects in children.
IS CHOCOLATE SAFE TO CONSUME?
Although lead and cadmium were found in all of the dark chocolates tested, five had safe levels of the heavy metals. Ghirardelli, Mast, Valrhona and Taza Chocolate had bars with cadmium and lead levels under California’s maximum allowable dose level (MADL). And 18 of the milk chocolate bars As You Sow tested had safe levels of lead and cadmium, with Hershey, Ghirardelli, Nestle, Dove and Mars being among the top brands. Heavy metals are found in cocoa solids, which is one component of the cacao used to make chocolate. Because Dark chocolate contains more cocoa than milk chocolate, it has higher levels of heavy metals—Consumer Reports recommends alternating between the two. However, because milk chocolate has more sugar than dark chocolate, neither should be consumed every day.
Multiple lawsuits have been brought against chocolate makers for misleading consumers about the presence of lead and cadmium in their products. Hershey and Trader Joe’s (whose dark chocolate had the highest levels of heavy metals in the Consumer Report study) are being separately sued by two New York consumers, according to Forbes reporting. The lawsuits accuse the companies of participating in deceptive practices by not disclosing the amount of heavy metals in their products to consumers. As You Sow sued top chocolate manufacturers after their research found high levels of heavy metals in their products. The case reached a settlement in 2018, which established concentration levels of cadmium and lead and required warning labels if the levels were surpassed.