The Holiday Season rolls around every year and with it comes sweets of every kind. One of the most popular and easily accessible? Grocery store chocolate. It’s delicious! We all eat it, we all love it – it’s a part of our holiday celebrations! But is it worse for us than we thought? Does it contain heavy metals? Let’s investigate.
ConsumerLab (CL) recently released an updated report on cadmium and lead in chocolate. The full reports are behind a paywall, so we’ll do our best to summarize it for you.
Thankfully, most products tested did not contain problematic levels of lead. However, several products exceeded the recommended level of cadmium per serving, including several brands of cacao powder and nibs (e.g., Navitas Organic Cacao Powder, Trader Joe’s Organic Fair Trade Cacao Powder) and some brands of dark chocolate bars (e.g., Alter Eco Deep Dark Blackout, Theo Sea Salt — 70%). If you’re able, we highly encourage you to read the full report for additional details and background information, since we are not able to summarize the report in full here.
Why is this Important?
Cadmium is a kidney toxin that can soften the bones, and it may increase the risk of cancer. Cadmium accumulates in the body (similarly to other heavy metals, like lead and mercury) and is very slowly excreted via urine. Due to its long half-life, it can take up to 76 years (yes, you read that right) to fully leave the body after exposure! Cigarette smoke is currently the most significant source of environmental cadmium exposure.
That said, cadmium competes with other metals for absorption, so regularly consuming adequate amounts of calcium, iron, and zinc may reduce cadmium absorption. Those who are iron deficient, especially women, are at greater risk for cadmium absorption after exposure.
Sadly for dark chocolate lovers (like us at SN!), cadmium concentrates in the cacao, so cacao powder/nibs and dark chocolates are likely to be higher in cadmium than milk chocolate. The U.S. FDA has not set a limit for cadmium in foods or supplements. However, the European Union has established a cadmium limit of 0.6 mcg per gram of cacao powder, which many cocoa powders tested in the CL review would violate. To put this into context, as compared to other plant-based foods that are normally considered “high” in cadmium (such as peanuts and sunflower seeds), the cacao products tested were 10-20 times higher.
Why is there Cadmium in Cocoa and Chocolate?
The amount of cadmium in cacao beans increases with the amount of cadmium in the soil in which it grows and with increased acidity of the soil. Cadmium naturally accumulates in soil due to volcanic activity, forest fires, and the weathering of rocks (Wade, PLOS One 2022).
What About Lead?
Interestingly, the lead content of the cocoa products appears to be related to harvesting and manufacturing practices rather than lead in the cacao beans themselves (like cadmium). Researchers suggest that lead in chocolate products may be due to a combination of factors, including contamination from cacao bean shells (which appear to scavenge lead from sources like gasoline emissions) as well as contamination during the fermentation and drying stages, and during shipping and processing (Rankin, Environ Health Perspect 2005).
What We Recommend
Our response to this? You can still safely eat chocolate! We sure do! We recommend choosing chocolates that contain lower levels of cadmium (according to the ConsumerLab report and another from Consumer Reports), reducing your overall intake, and sticking to the recommended serving size to help limit your exposure. Thankfully one of our favorite brands Hu (specifically Hu Salty Dark Chocolate 70% cocoa bar) was tested and found to have acceptable levels of cadmium (0.08mcg per gram/2.3mcg per serving of chocolate). We like Hu brand since it’s organic, fair trade, and minimally processed (further limiting opportunities for contamination). See below for additional brands that passed the CL test!
Based on the specifications of the 2023 CL review of a daily limit of cadmium of 4.1mcg for adults and 3 mcg for children, the following options would fall below that limit based on their cadmium per serving size.
Chocolate Bars and Chips:
- Lily’s Sea Salt- Extra Dark 70%
- Endangered Species Strong + Velvety 88%
- Trader Joe’s Pound Plus 72%
- Baker’s Semi-Sweet 56%
- Chocolove Strong 70%
- Ghirardelli Intense Dark 72%*
*Listed serving is only 25 g, which is near the limit for children
MOST CADMIUM (All exceeded the adult limit, at a serving size of 30g):
- Alter Eco Deep Dark Blackout 85%
- Trader Joe’s Uganda 85%
- Green & Blacks Organic Dark Chocolate 85%
- Theo Sea Salt 70%
- Scharffen Berger Unsweetened
- Lindt Excellence Supreme Dark 90%
Cocoa Powders and Nibs:
- Good and Gather Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
- Ghirardelli Premium Baking Cocoa
- Ghirardelli Double Chocolate cocoa mix
- Valrhona Cocoa powder
- Nestle Toll House 100% Pure Cocoa
MOST CADMIUM (At a 1-TB serving Trader Joe’s and Navitas Powder exceed limit for adults and Hershey’s exceeds limit for children. Healthworks Nibs exceed adult limit at suggested serving sizes of 28-30g):
- NOW Organic Cacao powder
- Navitas Organic Cocoa powder
- Wildly Organic Fermented Cacao Powder
- Healthworks Cacao Nibs
- Trader Joe’s Organic Fair Trade Cocoa Powder
- Hershey’s Cocoa Special Dark
But Wait, There’s More!
Selenium may protect against heavy metal exposure. A new study examined selenium’s ability to protect against exposure to heavy metals like mercury, lead, and cadmium. Selenium has the potential to protect against mercury toxicity in the context of fish consumption (so we can likely translate this to chocolate consumption as well, since lead and cadmium act, and are absorbed in the body similarly to mercury). While ocean fish contain mercury, they also contain selenium, which binds to mercury and limits its absorption. This explains why studies consistently show a strong net health benefit from fish consumption.
It’s also worth noting that 16 of the 25 highest sources of selenium are ocean fish, so consuming fish and seafood is the easiest way to ensure optimal selenium intake (and protect yourself from mercury, lead, and cadmium exposure). If fish isn’t your favorite, other selenium sources include Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, bananas, lentils, oats, cashews, mushrooms, and most animal products (including pork, beef, chicken, turkey, eggs, dairy products).
- Heavy metals, like cadmium, lead, and mercury are sometimes found in a variety of agricultural products due to soil contamination, air pollution, poor water quality, and other potential exposures during processing.
- The US FDA has not currently set a limit for cadmium in foods or supplements, nor does it regularly test for this.
- Cadmium concentrates in cacao, so cacao powder/nibs and dark chocolates are likely to be higher in cadmium than milk chocolate.
- You can safely still eat chocolate as long as you are choosing known low-level brands (like those listed above and in the CL Review) and limiting your serving size.
- Maintaining adequate mineral status may help protect against cadmium exposure by limiting its absorption. Individuals with low iron levels or anemia may be at greater risk of cadmium absorption.
- Selenium may protect against heavy metal exposure by binding to the contaminants and limiting their absorption in the body. Regularly consuming high-selenium foods can help naturally support selenium levels.
- Talk to your doctor or nutritionist about testing options and other recommendations to address heavy metal exposure and toxicity if this is something you are concerned about.
Interested in Learning More?
Schedule an appointment today to work with one of our nutritionists or our naturopathic physician to learn more and get personalized recommendations.
Are you concerned about your potential exposure level to various heavy metals (due to your love of chocolate or otherwise)? We offer lab testing options to look at various heavy metals (including lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and tin) as well as additional indicators of toxin exposure.
Interested in learning more? Schedule an appointment with us to get support on your journey to holistic and kind health.
|Edited by Riana Giusti, MS, CN