Lead in chocolate? What’s going on?

Submitted by skarimi@greena… on

We’re used to seeing all kinds of flavors and add-ins to chocolate – from sea salt to orange to ginger.  But recently there’s been a lot of buzz about additives that no one wants – lead and cadmium – being found in chocolate.

We’ll walk you through why those two heavy metals are found in many chocolate bars, the risks to you, and what you can do.

How do lead and cadmium end up in chocolate?

No one is deliberately adding lead or cadmium to chocolate bars.  

Lead ends up in cacao post-harvest, as the beans are fermenting and drying.  If they are dried on the ground, they may absorb lead from the ground.  They may also absorb lead from dust in the air.  All of this lead comes from the fact that the heavy metal was released from industrial processes and leaded fuel over decades and has spread widely.

Cadmium occurs naturally in many soils including volcanic soils. As cocoa trees grow, they absorb the cadmium which then ends up in the cocoa pods that are harvested to make chocolate.

Are heavy metals found in other foods?

Yes.  Heavy metals are found in a variety of foods.  

Testing of foods by the FDA found:

  • Spinach and sunflower seeds were highest in cadmium.
  • Baking powder has the highest lead concentrations, and baby foods like sweet potatoes and biscuits had the highest mean lead concentrations.
  • Arsenic concentrations were highest in crisped rice cereals.
  • Mercury is frequently found in fish samples.

Unfortunately, heavy metals are present in many foods. 

How concerned should you be?

Both lead and cadmium can lead to significant health risks if consumed on a regular basis.  

  • Cadmium can cause cancer and kidney damage, as well as weakened bones.
  • Lead can impact your nervous system, kidneys, gastrointestinal system, and respiratory tract.

Other heavy metals pose similar health risks.  

Of course, these risks are tied to how much of each heavy metal you consume and how often you consume it.  The damage tends to accumulate over time. Eating a varied and healthy diet can go a long way in reducing your risks from ingesting heavy metals.

What Can You Do Now?

To try to avoid a buildup of cadmium or lead in your body, it’s a good idea to treat chocolate as a treat, not a health food, and eat it occasionally. While dark chocolate contains antioxidants, it also tends to be higher in lead and cadmium than milk chocolate since there is more cocoa in the bar or truffle.  So eating milk or plant-based milk chocolate is one option, and can be a good choice for children, who are more susceptible to health issues from ingesting heavy metals (and children generally prefer milk chocolates).

You can also eat chocolate covered fruits or other snacks which will reduce the amount of chocolate eaten. If you prefer dark chocolate, you can look for bars with closer to 65% cocoa concentrations rather than bars with higher cocoa concentrations. 

You can also eat chocolates that test low in lead and cadmium, while supporting companies that have better practices around supporting farmers, communities, and the environment.

What are the solutions?

Long term, the solution to reducing heavy metals in chocolate must come from chocolate companies supporting farmers in changing growing and post-harvest practices to reduce lead and cadmium concentrations in cocoa.  This must be part of an overall increase in compensation and support from chocolate companies. Cocoa farmers often live on less than two dollars per day, so the burden can’t be on them to take action. Fair trade and direct trade chocolate companies can build on their practices of supporting farmers with higher payments and technical support to address heavy metals in chocolate as well. 

If multinational corporations, which earn billions of dollars per year off of chocolate, committed to paying farmers a living income and supporting cocoa farmers in improving their practices, it would result in a decline in child labor and deforestation in cocoa growing communities as well as a reduction in lead and cadmium in cocoa. As consumers, we can urge companies to do more for farmers.

Companies can also try to blend cocoa beans that are higher and lower in both lead and cadmium to produce bars that are at a safe level.

As consumers, we can support farmers by purchasing chocolate from companies that are engaged in fair trade or direct trade practices with farmers.  And, we can limit our exposure to lead and cadmium by purchasing fair trade and direct trade bars that test low in these heavy metals.

Dark Chocolates that are Fair or Direct Trade and Low in Lead and Cadmium

Nonprofit group As You Sow has done extensive testing on chocolates to see which bars contain lead or cadmium.  As You Sow didn’t test all chocolates for lead and cadmium, but of the fair or direct trade dark chocolate bars they tested, they found that the following had low levels of either heavy metal:

  • Equal Exchange Organic Fairly Traded Dark Chocolate Panama Extra Dark 80% Cacao
  • Divine 85% Dark Chocolate
  • Endangered Species Chocolate Natural Dark Chocolate with Cherries- 72% Cocoa

Milk chocolate bars from fair trade or direct trade companies are likely lower in both lead and cadmium as well.

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