What’s in your chocolate?
I’ve been in the dark about chocolate!
I just received a newsletter from ConsumerLab, one of my favorite consumer websites, that details not only what makes dark chocolate healthy (flavanols), but what potentially makes it just a little bit toxic (the heavy metals lead and cadmium).
And apparently this isn’t new news. I’ve found stories talking about trace levels of heavy metals in chocolate going back over ten years, so I don’t know how I missed it other than I’m not much of a chocolate eater.
Still, I have friends that are chocoholics and I usually buy dark chocolate around the holidays to pass on as gifts, because it seems both healthy and festive.
Have I been harming my friends? 😯
Ingestion of lead can lead to nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and fatigue. In children, lead poisoning can cause developmental delays and learning problems (remember Flint, MI!). Cadmium is considered a probable carcinogen, and it can damage our kidneys and bones.
Neither heavy metal is easily eliminated from our bodies, which means they can accumulate over time and cause problems years later.
How do heavy metals get in chocolate in the first place?
No one really knows the answer to this question. Most likely heavy metals enter the chocolate making chain at several different points.
In general, cadmium contamination appears to come from the soil the cocoa plants are grown in, and lead contamination occurs during processing.
Both these heavy metals bind to the cocoa solids, so contamination tends to be highest in dark chocolate, baking chocolate and cocoa powder.
Cadmium is more of a problem in chocolate than lead.
Unfortunately, the US doesn’t regulate cadmium levels in food, so manufacturers don’t have to put this information on the label. (Except in California, where a warning label is required if the cadmium level in a single serving is more than 4.1 micrograms.)
In Canada the limit is 6 micrograms for an adult, but only 3 micrograms for a child weighing less than 75 pounds.
To put these numbers in perspective, one of the worst offenders in ConsumerLab’s quality tests came in at a whopping 29 micrograms per serving! Another brand, labeled as “organic,” served up 22.7 micrograms.
Unfortunately, I can’t re-print ConsumerLab’s results here because they are copyrighted. If you are a chocolate lover and are really interested in the numbers and want to know which brand has the most flavanols and the fewest heavy metals, I highly recommend subscribing to their website (about $50 for 12 months). It’s an excellent source of independent testing of many herbal remedies, supplements and food items.
However, As You Sow, an environmental watchdog group, has a less detailed list of chocolate products that contain higher-than-recommended levels of both cadmium and lead, so you can head over there for more information.
Do I have to give up chocolate?
Short answer: No.
Everything in moderation.
Dark chocolate does have health benefits, and as long as the cadmium levels are relatively low, the good stuff probably outweighs the bad.
If I was a chocoholic and ate several large bars of dark chocolate every week, I would probably spring for the subscription to ConsumerLabs and find out which products have the least amount of contamination.
Children have the highest risk of being affected by both lead and cadmium. They can be harmed by smaller amounts, and heavy metals can have a profoundly negative effect on growth and learning. A subscription to ConsumerLabs might be worthwhile if you have small children and are unwilling to tolerate any amount of lead or cadmium-tainted chocolate getting into their diets.
If, like me, you only have an ounce or two a few times a year, well..I might not be getting any of the health benefits, but I’m not worried about the heavy metals, either.
Still, when I give my friends dark chocolate gift baskets next Christmas, they can feel confident that I’m not giving them a heavy dose of heavy metals, as well.