a block of dark chocolate

Is Cacao safe?

Deb Morris Chocolate, Chocolate Facts

There has been some, dare we say, panic over the fact that Hershey’s has been hit with a class action law suit regarding high levels of cadmium and lead in their dark chocolate treats. Since that lawsuit hit the news cycle while we were all chilling our champagne bottles to bid adieu to 2022, perhaps you missed the breaking news. Consumer Reports released an article titled, Lead and Cadmium Could be in your Dark Chocolate, stating that they “found dangerous heavy metals in chocolate from Hershey’s, Theo, Trader Joes and other popular brands.”

After 2000 years of enjoying cacao and living to tell about it, humanity is still here. Let’s get to the bottom of this issue and see if we can allay some fears.

  1. Where did this concern begin? It began with a settlement in California in 2018 brought on by a lawsuit by As You Sow, an organization that pushes for corporate accountability. The results of that settlement can be summarized in a statement on the National Confectioner’s Association website, “In 2018, the chocolate and cocoa industry agreed to a Consent Judgment in California. The Superior Court of the State of California, San Francisco County granted a motion to enter the Consent Judgment on February 14, 2018, which remains in effect. The Consent Judgment established concentration levels for both lead and cadmium that supersede the OEHHA MADLs for cocoa and chocolate products.” Their statement also goes on to say, “An expert investigation conducted through our prior California Proposition 65 settlement concluded that cadmium and lead are present in cocoa and chocolate due to soil and that bean cleaning during processing cocoa beans reduces lead and cadmium in chocolate products. The products cited in this study are in compliance with strict quality and safety requirements, and the levels provided to us by Consumer Reports testing are well under the limits established by our settlement.” In other words, while the Hershey’s class action lawsuit is breaking news, the acknowledgement of metal in our chocolate is not. 
  2. Barkeater Chocolates. California is the strictest state in the nation for food regulation, among others. Ever get a product that says it’s been known to cause cancer in the state of California? Good thing we’re in New York! One of our major chocolate suppliers hails from California and has released a statement that says, “Trace levels of minerals like lead and cadmium are naturally occurring in our products.” The statement goes on to say that our “cocoa and chocolate products do not require Prop 65 warnings due to traces of lead or cadmium so long as they meet specified limits.” Our supplier also has an ongoing and quality control program. Phew!
  3. What’s the deal with Cadmium? According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Cadmium is a natural element in the earth’s crust. It is usually found as a mineral combined with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine, or sulfur. Most soil and rocks, including coal and mineral fertilizers, contain some cadmium. Cadmium is used in many products, including batteries, pigments, metal coatings, and plastics, and it is found in cigarette smoke.” They go on to explain that, “When eaten, large amounts of cadmium can severely irritate the stomach and cause vomiting and diarrhea.” It also known as a cancer causing agent. It’s serious stuff for sure.
  4. What about Lead? We have long known about the dangers of lead poising. The most well known danger is in lead paint, which has been outlawed in the US since 1978. The Mayo Clinic recommends that all children be tested for lead at ages 1 and 2. But lead is a naturally occurring metal in soil. So how do we deal with that? The Food and Drug Administration states, “While it is not possible to prevent or remove lead entirely from foods, the levels in food can be reduced. By law, food manufacturers have a responsibility to implement controls to significantly minimize or prevent exposure to chemical hazards—including lead.”
  5. Should I stop eating chocolate? If you do, best to remove leafy vegetables as well. And fish. And root vegetables. And mushrooms. And cereal. And cigarettes (OK, that one you should really consider quitting). And yes, folks, cannabis in any form (that’s another discussion for another day). If Hershey is found to be at fault for high concentrations of cadmium and lead, they will undoubtedly look to the farms where the cacao beans are sourced. Sure, everything rolls up hill, and chocolate manufacturers will have to put protocols in place to ensure the safety of its products at the source. The reality is however, that where the beans grow is where the metal comes from. Let’s pull an example from one of everyone’s favorite drama, CSI. On September 26, 2002, CSI aired an episode called, Revenge is Best Served Cold. **Spoiler Alert**: A man drops dead at a casino table. Fast forward to the cause of death figured out by our leading man, Grissom. The CSI investigator tells his eager team that the majority of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa, 70% in fact. And the man at the casino had a ravenous sweet tooth. It was theorized that the dead man enjoyed over one pound of candy coated chocolates every day for 16 years. The lead reached a toxic level in his system and that, along with another poison (we don’t want to spoil everything) caused his death.
  6. While this gets sorted out, what is a chocolate lover to do? Unless you consume over one pound of chocolate every day for your entire life, you’re probably OK indulging. Remember, the FDA considers a serving of chocolate to be 30 grams, approximately 1 oz., daily.
  7. Other factors. We tend to focus on scary headlines; and we haven’t heard the last of this heavy metal saga. Does anyone remember how mercury levels in tuna dominated the headlines in the early 2000’s? Also note that increased levels of lead and cadmium are a bigger problem for certain people. According to the FDA, “People vulnerable to the harmful effects of arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury in food include infants and children, the elderly, and consumers who may have chronic health conditions.”

In conclusion, while we shouldn’t dismiss any concerns about heavy metals in our food (check out the FDA’s Closer to Zero regarding baby food), common sense, moderation and a healthy lifestyle should always be our goal. If you’re enjoying chocolate in moderation, the way it should be enjoyed, then you can breathe easy. Now, about those non-stick coated frying pans you’ve been using….