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Study finds worrisome levels of lead and cadmium in chocolate

An announcement from a California-based consumer health watchdog group says no, chocolate isn’t good for you. Sorry.

A California-based consumer health watchdog group has taken legal action against major chocolate manufacturers, including Hershey’s, for failing to warn consumers that their products contain levels of lead and cadmium that exceed state guidelines.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

Each year around Valentine’s Day, I receive a small but steady stream of press releases touting the health benefits of chocolate. I’ve come to ignore them, as the studies they enthusiastically reference are either observational, conducted on animals, involve too few people or are designed in some other way that makes their findings pretty much meaningless — at least for people who are trying to construct a more healthful diet.

And those studies are almost always funded by the chocolate industry.

This year, however, a different kind of chocolate-related press release emerged in my email box. It was an announcement from As You Sow, a California-based consumer health watchdog group, that they had taken legal action against major chocolate manufacturers for failing to warn consumers that their products contain levels of lead and cadmium that exceed state guidelines.

The companies are Mars, See’s Candies and Hershey’s. Last July, As You Sow initiated similar legal action against 13 other chocolate manufacturers: Godiva, Ghirardelli, Lindt, Green and Black’s, Kroger, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Earth Circle Organics, Moonstruck, Theo and Vosges.

Over the threshold

Of the 46 chocolate products most recently tested by the nonprofit, 26 contained lead or cadmium at levels that surpass California’s “safe-harbor” threshold levels.

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“A single serving of the chocolate with the highest lead levels contained 5.9 times the maximum allowable dose level set by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment,” noted Bridget Huber of FairWarning in her report of the study’s findings. “…Those with the highest concentrations of cadmium contained 8.2 times the maximum allowable dose level set by the state, per serving. None carry a warning label.” 

Lead ingestion is associated with many neurological and reproductive problems, including lower IQ in children. Chronic exposure to cadmium can lead to [PDF] kidney, liver and bone damage, and at high doses cadmium is a carcinogen.

Industry responses

Susan Smith, senior vice president of communications and outreach at the National Confectioners Association, told Washington Post reporter Lenny Bernstein that it’s impossible to eliminate all traces of cadmium and lead from their products because such metals occur naturally in the soil and water in some of the areas where cocoa beans are grown.

But a 2005 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives concluded that lead in chocolate was not from naturally occurring sources.

Furthermore, as Eleanne Van Vliet, director of toxic chemicals research for As You Sow, told Bernstein, it’s the cumulative exposure that’s a concern — especially since we are also exposed to cadmium and lead from other environmental sources, including some sources of drinking water.

“The problem with those toxic heavy metals is they accumulate in the body. It’s terrible for adults, but especially for children,” she said.

“To protect consumers, companies should take immediate steps to remove these toxic heavy metals from their products or, at a minimum, to warn according to the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986,” the As You Sow researchers stress. “If the heavy metals are not removed, people need to be informed so they can protect themselves and their families.”

You can read about the study and find a list of the products found to contain lead and cadmium on the As You Sow website (scroll down for the products).