With Valentine’s Day on its way, thoughts are turning to love . . . and chocolate.

For many, dark chocolate is the chocolate of choice, and those who prefer dark chocolate will quickly tell you it’s healthier than milk chocolate. Why? Because studies suggest that its rich supply of antioxidants may improve heart health and other conditions. That and its relatively low levels of sugar.

Even the USDA gets into the act, saying that a typical 1-ounce serving size of dark chocolate packs roughly 3.4 mg of iron, with some brands containing only 8 grams of sugar per 12-piece serving.

Asked how they rate dark chocolate compared to sweets in general, more than half of the people in a recent survey conducted by the National Confectioners Association described it as a “better-for-you” candy.

But when it comes to health, it’s not a slam dunk. Research has found that some dark chocolate bars contain cadmium and lead—two heavy metals linked to a host of health problems in children and adults, according to research done by Consumer Reports.

A recent article in the publication points out that scientists measured the number of heavy metals in 28 dark chocolate bars. In doing so, they found cadmium and lead in all of them.

Worse yet, in the case of 23 of the bars, eating just an ounce a day would put an adult over a level that public health authorities and Consumer Report’s experts say may be harmful to at least one of those heavy metals. What’s more, five of the bars were above those levels for both cadmium and lead.

A health risk
This is obviously a health risk simply because just a small amount of heavy metals can cause some serious health problems. Consistent, long-term exposure to even small amounts of heavy metals can lead to a variety of health problems. The danger is greatest for pregnant people and young children because the metals can cause developmental problems, affect brain development, and lead to lower IQ, says Tunde Akinleye, the CR food safety researcher who led this testing project. 

“But there are risks for people of any age,” said, Akinleye pointing out that frequent exposure to lead in adults, can lead to nervous system problems, hypertension, immune system suppression, kidney damage, and reproductive issues. 

While most people don’t eat chocolate every day, there are some people — a surprising 15 percent — who do. That is according to research conducted by Mintel, a research firm.

But even if you don’t eat chocolate on a regular basis, lead and cadmium can still be a concern. It can be found in many other foods — such as sweet potatoes, spinach, and carrots — and small amounts from multiple sources can add up to dangerous levels. That’s why the researchers say it’s important to limit exposure when you can.

Why sweet potatoes and carrots? Root vegetables absorb more toxins from the soil, especially carrots and sweet potatoes. In tests, these foods contained high levels of lead and cadmium, but some also contained mercury and arsenic. That’s because the roots of plants, which are in the closest contact with the soil, have higher concentrations of heavy metals than other vegetables. 

In other words, you need to be careful not to build up levels of toxic metals in your body by eating too many of the foods that contain them. That’s why overindulging in chocolate can be a food-safety issue, especially when added to lead and heavy metals from other sources.

However,  that doesn’t mean you should stop eating root vegetables altogether because they do have vitamins and nutrients that are healthy. Nor should you quit eating chocolate. But moderation is the key.

Not a magic bullet
“In terms of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, I think that it’s important to keep in mind that chocolate isn’t a magic bullet,” cautions Dr. Joshua Lambert, professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University. “Eating chocolate regularly, under 30 grams three times a week, can be part of a diet and lifestyle that is optimized for longevity and good health.”

And food safety comes into the picture in another way.

“Not only does processing help develop the flavor and aroma of the cocoa into the chocolate we know and love,” said Lambert, “it also pasteurizes the cocoa, reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses.”

While cocoa and chocolate are two terms often used interchangeably, they are not one and the same. Cocoa is the seed of a cacao tree while chocolate is made by mixing cocoa with other ingredients which can include milk, sugar, or cream.

The safest choices of the 28 bars tested were by brands including:

Taza Chocolate

The chocolates that were high in both lead and cadmium include bars from:

Trader Joe’s
Green & Blacks

How to decide
Look for dark chocolates with lower cacao percentages. If you’re considering a bar that CR didn’t test, you may want to opt for a 70 percent dark chocolate product over an 80 percent one, for example, or a 65 percent bar over a 70 percent one. 

While that’s not a foolproof measure, Consumer Reports tests, as well as testing done by other organizations, suggest that cadmium levels tend to increase with the percentage of cacao. Lead levels don’t seem to be as closely tied to cacao percentage. 

Alternate with milk chocolate. Cacao levels are lower in milk chocolate than in dark chocolate, so milk chocolate tends to have lower levels of heavy metals. But that doesn’t mean you can eat it with abandon: It has a lot more added sugars. So it is best to eat both kinds of chocolates only occasionally, not every day. 

Consumer Reports’ petition to reduce toxins in dark chocolate

Consumer Reports has called on leading dark chocolate makers to reduce the level of dangerous heavy metals in their products. 

Go here (https://www.consumerreports.org/health/food-safety/lead-and-cadmium-in-dark-chocolate-a8480295550/) to read more about how CR tested dark chocolate. 

In letters accompanied by nearly 55,000 petition signatures, CR urged Trader Joe’s, Hershey’s, Mondelez, and Theo to make a commitment to take action by Valentine’s Day.

Go here (https://action.consumerreports.org/20221215_heavymetalschocolate_cro) to sign the petition.

Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, noted in the letter to the companies, “Consumers are troubled that many of their favorite dark chocolate bars contain high levels of heavy metals. Many choose to eat dark chocolate because of its potential health benefits and relatively low levels of sugar. But there’s nothing healthy about ingesting heavy metals.”

Not just chocolate
Consumer Reports is also advising consumers not to buy the popular Valentine’s Day hearts candy made by Spangle Company. The reason for this is that they are made with Red Dye No. 3, which is a known cancer-causing substance.

This iconic candy with its “cute flirty” sayings is a Valentine’s Day tradition.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t prohibit this dye from being added to food, it does require that it be listed as an ingredient on a food item’s label.

More than 2,900 food products contain Red Dye 3, including many artificially flavored and artificially colored candies.

In addition to urging candy companies to stop using Red Dye 3, Consumer Reports joined the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups in October 2022 to petition the FDA for a ban on the cancer-causing ingredient in all food.

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