Heavy Metal Valentine: Is There Lead in Your Chocolate?

A California group takes legal action against 16 companies for failing to warn consumers.

Nutrition

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, Ghiradhelli, 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” levelor the maximum allowable daily limitfor 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 Boston University School of Medicine professor of pediatrics and public health Sean Palfrey, is that “No amount of lead ingestion is safe for children.” What’s more, “lead exposure is cumulative”it builds up in the bodyexplains 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 filed notices of legal action today 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 today’s filings–in July, November, 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 do 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 practice.

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 Dagobaone of the brands namedsaid 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 anthropogenicor human causedprocesses. Proposition 65 regards environmental contaminants in 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 Lanphearboth practicing pediatricians and lead expertsthe 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 saysbefore chocolate gets to the store shelf.

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  1. Stephenie Hendricks
    Wednesday, February 11th, 2015
    Thank you for this terrific story from Lizzie Grossman!
  2. Wednesday, February 11th, 2015
    I am shocked to hear about dark chocolate and heavy metals....but appalled by the FDA that is funded by us to protect us.....once again they have shown that they are the poster child for hear, see and speak no evil....until someone else strips them of the bag on their heads....metals in the soil? In our oceans? With all the blasts and spills and deliberate dumping of petroleum and chemicals going on.... sure plant a pipeline right through the heart of our country....the FDA in a couple of decades will let us know of the ground soil contamination....
  3. bb
    Thursday, February 12th, 2015
    would love a link provided for the current testing- brands tested and what and how much was found in each. thanks
  4. Annia
    Thursday, February 12th, 2015
    Thanks to geo engineering. Everything is covered with heavy metals.
  5. Eleanne
    Saturday, February 14th, 2015
    For more details on the testing commissioned by As You Sow, and for charts of chocolate products tested, please visit www.asyousow.org. Thanks for your interest.
  6. Elizabeth Grossman
    Saturday, February 14th, 2015
    The As You Sow chocolate testing results are available through the organization's homepage at the link above:
    http://www.asyousow.org at "Lead and Cadmium in Food:

    The details are also at this link: http://www.asyousow.org/our-work/environmental-health/toxic-enforcement/lead-and-cadmium-in-food/
  7. Janet
    Tuesday, February 24th, 2015
    Helpful to k
    eep in mind that the FDA's true mission is to protect food corporations, not the consumer.
  8. Mary Meehan
    Wednesday, February 25th, 2015
    Hard to believe that companies allow such toxins in their chocolates and today's children DO consume DARK chocolate because we grandparents and parents have been told it is healthier than milk chocolate. So long chocolate!
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