(This article by Elizabeth Grossman was first published Feb. 11, 2015, by Civil Eats and is reposted here with permission.)

We’ve begun to expect unusual flavors like chili, salt, and lavender in chocolate. But there might be another surprising addition to your Valentine’s Day sweets: heavy metals. According to the consumer health watchdog As You Sow, there’s a good chance that chocolate you buy may contain lead or cadmium. Lab test results obtained by the group examined 42 products, 26 of which contained lead and/or cadmium at levels above what the state of California considers safe. The brands that tested positive for heavy metals included Hershey’s, Mars, Ghirardelli, Godiva, See’s, Lindt, Whole Foods, and Green and Black’s. Some of the chocolate tested contained lead at levels up to 5.9 times California’s “safe harbor” level — or the maximum allowable daily limit — for reproductive harm, and found cadmium at levels up to 8.2 times the limit. “No one expects heavy metals in their chocolate,” said Eleanne van Vliet, As You Sow’s director of toxic chemicals research. “We hope to convince chocolate manufacturers to remove heavy metals from their products,” said As You Sow President Danielle Fugere. Lead is well-known to cause neurological damage, particularly in children. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered what it considers “elevated lead exposure” for children from 10 to 5 parts per million. What this amounts to, says Sean Palfrey, Boston University School of Medicine professor of pediatrics and public health, is that, “No amount of lead ingestion is safe for children.” What’s more, “lead exposure is cumulative” — it builds up in the body — explains Bruce Lanphear, Faculty of Health Sciences professor at Simon Fraser University. As both Lanphear and Palfrey explain, chocolate is unlikely to be the only source of lead to which someone is exposed. And, as anyone with a sweet tooth can attest, it can be hard to stick with a single recommended serving. Long-term, low-level exposure to cadmium can cause bone, kidney, and liver damage. In animal studies, cadmium has also been shown to cause developmental, reproductive, and neurological harm. There are also concerns about prenatal exposure to both cadmium and lead. It’s for these reasons that California has established safety limits and requires warnings on products that exceed them. And, it’s on this basis that As You Sow recently filed notices of legal action against three major chocolate brands alleging violation of California’s law (known as Proposition 65) for failing to warn consumers of cadmium in their chocolate products and against 13 brands for failure to issue warnings about lead and cadmium. This is the fourth time As You Sow has filed notices against chocolate companies on such grounds. The organization filed notices — naming many of the same brands in the filings — in JulyNovember, and December 2014. Another organization filed such notices back in 2002, but they were withdrawn before coming to trial. Research into lead and cadmium contamination of chocolate and cocoa dates back at least 10 to 15 years. Studies have found these metals in chocolate purchased all around the world. A survey by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published in 2000 found milk chocolate bars to have the fourth-highest lead concentration of all the food it tested. Lead content in some dark chocolates does exceed what FDA considers an acceptable children’s exposure level, but because children don’t eat very much dark chocolate, the agency does not appear to be concerned about this exposure. How do these heavy metals get into chocolate in the first place? Scientists point to environmental contamination, primarily of soil, as a likely culprit. But air pollution may also be a factor as cacao beans are often dried outdoors. A 2005 study found high levels of lead in chocolate sourced from Nigeria. The authors suspected that air and soil contamination from leaded gasoline were to blame. It’s also thought that lead may enter at other points in the chocolate manufacturing process. Meanwhile, the industry group Responsible Cocoa, an international coalition of chocolate manufacturers that works in the U.S. with the National Confectioners Association, says that “most of the naturally occurring lead is in the cacao bean shell, which is removed during processing.” It also notes that, “FDA and other health authorities have determined that tiny traces of naturally occurring heavy metals in foods are unavoidable and present no public health risk.” Asked about heavy metals in chocolate, Hershey’s, which owns Dagoba — one of the brands named — said in a statement, “People have been eating cocoa and chocolate for centuries with no evidence of a single incident of concern regarding these naturally occurring minerals.” As You Sow disagrees with the industry’s use of the term “naturally occurring,” explaining that these contaminants end up in the environment and hence in cacao due to anthropogenic, or human-caused, processes. Proposition 65 regards environmental contaminants the same way. As You Sow has not identified any specific links between where the chocolate comes from and its lead content, but that’s mostly because manufacturers don’t typically reveal cacao origins, says van Vliet. There also appears to be no clear pattern of brands affected as they span the range of chocolate on the market. So how concerned should we be? According to Palfrey and Lanphear — both practicing pediatricians and lead experts — the lead an adult might be exposed to in chocolate may be small, but it adds up and can be harmful to infants and children. And there’s no easy way to find lead-free brands. As Palfry sees it, more testing throughout the process would be a step in the right direction. “These exposures are preventable,” he says — before chocolate gets to the store shelf.
  • Kitsy WooWoo

    “The brands that tested positive for heavy metals included Hershey’s, Mars, Ghirardelli, Godiva, See’s, Lindt, Whole Foods, and Green and Black’s.” Now that chocolate prices have skyrocketed, a scare article should help to dissuade shoppers from buying chocolate entirely.

    I’ve been scarfing down two squares of 72% Chirardelli (or Lindt) dark chocolate bars every day for many years. It’s been my only dessert, and I have a slew of the bars stockpiled on my shelf — which were bought when they were on sale. So now I’ll have to find another addiction, huh? Something not chocolate? Life is no longer any fun. 🙁

  • Munch Hausen

    If this is true, then the CEOs of these companies should be behind bars. Unless or until we take drastic measures against these executives, no one is going to really take food safety seriously.

  • JM

    Notice how the article doesn’t give any absolute numbers for the chocolate tested, just X times above the limit. Prop 65 is basically an excuse for lawyers to extort money from people.

    The article itself says that the CDC considers the risk level of lead exposure to children to be 5 ppm. California’s limit for lead is 0.5 micrograms. In a 41 g chocolate bar, that amounts to 0.012 part per million, or basically 12 parts per billion. That’s almost 400 times lower than the level the CDC considers safe. Lead in water must be below 15 ppb according to the EPA. A chocolate bar can be considered “contaminated” by California if it has less lead in it than is allowed in drinking water.

    A child would have to eat 70 of the chocolate bars that are 5.9 times above the Prop 65 limit to get to to the CDCs limit. Plus, the CDC’s limit is for blood concentration. Not all lead consumed will be absorbed and make it to the blood. Children have less ability to remove lead from the body than adults, which is why it is easier for it to build up in their system. But the CDC says about 32% of the lead a child ingests will be eliminated in a couple weeks.

    In short, these levels are low to be a concern. If your child eats enough chocolate to have medically relevant amounts of lead, they probably will have more issues with the sugar and fat.