While there are many benefits associated with eating chocolate, it’s hard to say whether you’d be getting the same benefits if your chocolate was tainted with toxic heavy metals lead and cadmium.
Unfortunately, this is the case for many popular brands we see on the market today (even “organic” brands). In fact, a great deal of the chocolate consumed around the world contains lead and cadmium, two heavy metals that are toxic to the body.
Negative Health Effects of Lead and Cadmium
In a study conducted by As You Sow, levels of cadmium and lead in 45 of 70 chocolate bar samples (including some organic brands) tested were found to be higher than what is considered safe in drinking water.
Both lead and cadmium are toxic metals that are unhealthy even at extremely low doses.
Lead is found in many places in our environment: air and drinking water, soil, dust, paint, cosmetics, contaminated herbal products from China, children’s toys, jewelry, ceramics, imported canned food, and many other sources (including chocolate).
Lead is toxic to the nervous system, liver, kidneys and reproductive system. Chronic exposure can lead to anemia, weakness, kidney damage, and even brain damage (1). “Lead exposure is associated with neurological impairment, such as learning disabilities and decreased IQ, even at very low levels. In fact, there is no safe level of lead for children,” said Eleanne van Vliet, MPH, As You Sow’s Environmental Health Consultant.
“As underscored by the Flint disaster, humans have contaminated our environment with lead, and now we must do everything in our power to protect ourselves and children, who are the most vulnerable of us, from every possible exposure,” said Sean Palfrey, MD, a paediatrician and Professor of Paediatrics and Public Health at Boston University School of Medicine.”Young children and pregnant women especially should avoid exposure to lead.”
Cadmium isn’t much better. Chronic exposure to cadmium can create serious problems in the kidneys, bones, and lungs, leading to conditions such as osteoporosis, heart disease and even cancer (2). As with lead, children are more susceptible to the ill-effects that long-term low doses of cadmium can have on the body over time.
“Lead and cadmium accumulate in the body, so avoiding exposure is important, especially for children,” explained Danielle Fugere, As You Sow President. “Our goal is to work with chocolate manufacturers to find ways to avoid these metals in their products.”
Why Are Heavy Metals Found In Chocolate?
One word: contamination.
While manufacturers claim that lead and cadmium are absorbed by the cacao plant in trace amounts and come from naturally-occurring sources, research claims otherwise.
An article published in Environmental Health Perspectives looked at the studies done by American, Nigerian, British, and Australian researchers. They concluded that only a small percentage of contamination is coming from the soil itself. The big contributor? The shipping and processing of cocoa products (3).
Another study published by As You Sow (the same people who conducted the heavy metals in chocolate study), found that lead and cadmium contaminate chocolate via the following routes (4):
– Soil contamination due to man-made pollution
– Direct application of pesticides and sewage sludge disposal containing lead and cadmium, as well as fertilizers containing cadmium
– Processing: fermentation, drying the beans, manufacturing (drying, refining, cinching), shipping, handling, packaging
According to As You Sow, the largest contributor to heavy metal contamination in chocolate occurs after the beans have already been harvested and dried. Shipment and manufacturing of cocoa and chocolate products is also a major contributor (5).
In the U.S., there is no set limit for these metals in chocolate, aside from California, where chocolate makers are required to put a warning label on their products if they contain more than 4.1 mg of cadmium per daily serving.
This is unlike the European Union, who has developed strict guidelines for cadmium exposure: no more than 0.10 mg/kg of cadmium in milk chocolate, and no more than 0.30 mg/kg of cadmium for darker chocolates.
A recent review published in 2019 pointed out a variety of different studies that looked into heavy metal concentrations in cacao and cocoa products (6).
One of the studies looked at in the review explained that processing methods accounted for increased concentration of heavy metals.
This also explains why milk chocolate might show up as having lower levels of heavy metals, as the percentage of cocoa powder in chocolate products is directly proportional to their corresponding lead and cadmium levels (7).
In addition, some studies have found that cadmium concentration in cocoa beans do not show any significant difference between cocoa cultivated under organic versus conventional production (8).
Brands of Chocolate to Avoid
As You Sow laboratory-tested 70 chocolate products. Results showed that over 45 of them contained higher levels of lead and cadmium than would be safe in our drinking water.
The brands that tested unsafe are included below. Those marked in red contain lead and cadmium; and blue contains lead only:
– Bissinger’s All Natural 60% Dark Chocolate, Whole Almonds
– Cadbury Mini Eggs Royal Dark Dark Chocolate With A Crisp Sugar Shell
– Cadbury Royal Dark Dark Chocolate Indulgent Semi-Sweet
- Creative Natural Products
– Chocolove Extra Strong Dark Chocolate – 77% Cocoa Content
– Chocolove Strong Dark Chocolate Bar 70% Cocoa Content
- Earth Circle Foods
– Earth Circle Organics Organic Balinese Cacao Nibs Cold Pressed
- Endangered Species Chocolate
– Endangered Species Chocolate Natural Dark Chocolate with 88% Cocoa
– Endangered Species Chocolate Natural Dark Chocolate (72% Cocoa)
- Equal Exchange
– Equal Exchange Organic & Fairly Traded Dark Chocolate Very Dark (71% Cacao)
- Ghirardelli Chocolate Company
– Ghirardelli Chocolate Premium Baking Bar 100% Cacao Unsweetened Chocolate
– Ghirardelli Chocolate Intense Dark Twilight Delight (72% Cacao)
- Godiva Chocolatier
– Godiva Chocolatier 85% Cacao Extra Dark Chocolate
– Godiva Chocolatier 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate
– Godiva Chocolatier 50% Cacao Dark Chocolate Sea Salt
- Hershey Company
– Dagoba Organic Chocolate New Moon Rich Dark Chocolate (74% Cacao)
– Dagoba Organic Chocolate Eclipse Extra Strong Dark Chocolate (87% Cacao)
– Hershey’s Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate
– Scharffen Berger Extra Dark Fine Artisan Dark Chocolate (82% cacao)
– Scharffen Berger Semisweet Fine Artisan Dark Chocolate (62% cacao)
- Kraft Foods
– Cote D’Or 86% Noir Brut Belgian Dark Chocolate Confection
- Lake Champlain Chocolates
– Lake Champlain Chocolates Dark Chocolate Organic (57% Cocoa)
- Lindt & Sprungli (USA)
– Lindt Excellence 85% Cocoa Extra Dark Chocolate Bar
– Lindt Excellence 70% Cocoa Smooth Dark Chocolate Bar
- Mars, Incorporated
– Dove Eggs Dark Chocolate Silky Smooth
– Dove Silky Smooth Dark Chocolate Bar
– Snickers Bar
- Mondelez International
– Green & Black’s Organic Dark 85% Cacao Bar
- Moonstruck Chocolate
– Moonstruck Solid Dark Chocolate Hand-Painted Calico Bunny
– Moonstruck Dark Chocolate Chile Variado (68% cacao)
- Newman’s Own Organics
– Newman’s Own Organics The Second Generation Super Dark Chocolate Premium Organic Chocolate 70% Cocoa
- Ritter Sport
– Ritter Sport 73% Cocoa Fine Extra Dark Chocolate with fine cocoa from Ecuador
- See’s Candies
– See’s Candies Premium Extra Dark Chocolate Bar 62% Cacao
– See’s Candies 4.5 oz Sitting Rabbit Dark Chocolate
- Taza Chocolate
– Taza Mexicano Super Dark Direct Trade 85% Dark
– Taza Wicked Dark 95% Stone Ground Organic Chocolate
- The Kroger Co.
– Private Selection 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate Swiss Bar
- Theo Chocolate
– Theo Organic Fair Trade Pure 85% Dark Chocolate
- Trader Joe’s Company
– Trader Joe’s The Dark Chocolate Lover’s Chocolate Bar 85% Cacao
– Trader Joe’s Single Origin Chocolate Passport Dominican Republic 70% Cacao
– Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate 73% Cacao Super Dark
– Trader Joe’s Single Origin Chocolate Passport Tanzania 73% Cacao
– Trader Joe’s Single Origin Chocolate Passport Peru 60% Cacao
– Trader Joe’s Single Origin Chocolate Passport Ecuador 66% Cacao
– Trader Joe’s Single Origin Chocolate Passport Venezuela 70% Cacao
– Trader Joe’s Single Origin Chocolate Passport Papa New Guinea 70% Cacao
– Trader Joe’s Swiss 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate
– Trader Joe’s Pound Plus 72% Cacao Dark Chocolate
– Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Bar Toffee With Walnuts and Pecans (70% cacao)
– Trader Joe’s Pound Plus- Dark Chocolate
– Trader Joe’s Single Origin Chocolate Passport Sao Tome 70% Cacao
– Trader Joe’s Single Origin Chocolate Passport Ghana 70% Cacao
- Vosges, Ltd.
– Wild Ophelia All Natural New Orleans Chili Dark Chocolate Bar (70% cacao)
- Whole Foods Market
– 365 Everyday Value Organic Dark Chocolate Coconut 56% Cacao
– Whole Foods 72% cacao Organic Dark Chocolate & Almond Tanzania Schoolhouse Project
Safer Chocolate Brands
The unfortunate reality is, is that most of the chocolate grown comes from soil that is contaminated with heavy metals. This goes for both organic and non-organic chocolate.
This, in addition to the fact that certain processing methods may increase heavy metal concentration in chocolate, makes finding safe chocolate quite difficult.
I have personally reached out to some companies to check for heavy metal contamination, but none of them have given me clear answers on whether their chocolate is free from these contaminants.