Your Chocolate May Contain Lead — But Should You Stop Eating It?
One advocacy group says levels in some products are unsafe, but chocolate companies disagree
With daily headlines about lead in drinking water striking fear across the nation, we forget that lead, a naturally occurring element, can find its way into food, too. One advocacy group is sounding the alarm over lead levels in one particular food: chocolate.
As You Sow, an advocacy group based in California, recently leveled claims that some popular chocolates contain unsafe levels of lead and other metals, including cadmium.
As You Sow has conducted independent laboratory testing of 50 chocolate products for lead and cadmium. We found that 35 of the chocolate products contain lead and/or cadmium. Many of those chocolates had levels of lead and/or cadmium above the safe harbor threshold of California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 (Proposition 65).
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 Proposition 65.
The same group filed legal notices in 2015 demanding many of the big chocolate companies add lead warnings to their packaging.
It’s not news that chocolate can contain lead and cadmium. Regarding lead, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explains:
Lead is widely present in our environment due to its natural occurrence and human activities that have introduced it into the general environment such as the use of leaded gasoline. Because lead may be present in environments where food crops are grown and animals used for food are raised, various foods may contain unavoidable but small amounts of lead that do not pose a significant risk to human health.
However, foods may become contaminated with lead if they are grown, stored or processed under conditions that could introduce larger amounts of lead into the food, such as when a root crop is grown in soil that has been contaminated from the past use of leaded pesticides on that acreage. Under such conditions, the resulting contamination of the food may pose a health risk to consumers.
Lead exposure is especially dangerous to children. The FDA has set a maximum recommended lead level of 0.1 parts per million (ppm) in candy (including chocolate) likely to be consumed by children.
A 2006 FDA report found a mean lead level in 40 samples of milk chocolate candy bars of 0.025 ppm — well below the recommended maximum. But several dark chocolate samples had lead levels exceeding 0.1 ppm. Dark chocolate — often touted as packing more health benefits than milk chocolate — might contain more lead than milk chocolate.
Dark chocolate samples tended to have higher lead levels than milk chocolate samples because chocolate liquor is the principal source of lead in chocolate products, and dark chocolate products contain higher amounts of chocolate liquor than milk chocolate products.
Major chocolate companies have disputed As You Sow's claims, insisting their products are safe and contain only trace amounts of lead and cadmium, below recommended limits.
So should you toss the chocolate or not?
David Katz, MD, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center and author of "Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well," notes California’s limits are stricter than federal limits and offers several reasons to hold onto those Easter bunnies.
"If there is a way to reduce heavy metals in chocolate, and if this survey helps to accelerate that process — it's all for the good. In the interim, though, there are several good reasons not to overreact to this issue.
“For one, the California standards used to cite the concern are very strict. That's a good thing, but it also means that health risks may be tiny when those standards aren't met.
“For another, we are not talking about some new threat in chocolate; we are talking about the way chocolate has been for quite some time. So, if you've been eating chocolate and your health has been fine, there is no reason to expect that to change. Most studies show net health benefit from moderate dark chocolate intake, and that is despite these contaminants. That suggests benefits may outweigh any potential harms.
“Finally, there is the fact that entirely uncontaminated food is rare to nonexistent on this planet we have treated so harshly. We have to reconcile ourselves to that: If we look hard for contaminants in any food, we will find it. We are left, then, needing to avoid making perfect the enemy of food. Even the foods that are good for us will be good for us despite unavoidable imperfections."
In an article on cadmium in cocoa, Berkeley Wellness underscores that notion.
Cocoa is just one of many sources of cadmium. Lots of foods contain trace amounts, notably rice, as well as seaweed, seafood, and some organ meats; even peanuts, sunflower seeds, leafy greens, potatoes, bread, and mushrooms contribute to dietary cadmium intake. In fact, most foods—even ones we consider to be very healthful—carry some kind of potential risk.
As usual, the advice to eat a varied diet full of healthful foods seems to prevail.
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