From The Desk of Josh Gitalis

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Do we all need to give up chocolate forever? Recent reports about unsafe levels of lead and cadmium in chocolate may have moved some to stash away the chocolate bars. Before you give up chocolate for good, let’s talk about toxins in chocolate – and how they may impact our health.

Consumer Reports: Dark Chocolate Testing

In December 2022, Consumer Reports released results of testing on 28 different dark chocolate bars.

In sum:

  • All the bars analyzed were high in lead, cadmium or both
  • 23 of the 28 bars had amounts of lead and/or cadmium in a one-ounce serving that would put the average adult over the allowable daily recommended limit for those metals

You can read the full report here, as well as which brands are safer than others.

What is Prop 65, and why is it showing up on my labels?

Consumer Reports measured chocolate samples against California’s “maximum allowable dose levels (MADL) for cadmium and lead” under the state’s Proposition 65 law. This law mandates that companies provide a warning label on products that contain chemicals that may cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive damage.

The MADL “is the level at which a chemical would have no observable effect, even if an individual were exposed to 1,000 times that level.”

You’ll find Prop 65 warning labels on foods, but also on all kinds of non-edible products like household products, furniture, personal care products, building materials, toys, electronics and more. Warning labels can also be posted in workplaces where customers or employees are exposed to chemicals.

Seeing this label can cause some immediate worry and panic. Others have become de-sensitized to it from seeing it everywhere. The trouble is, while it’s helpful to have knowledge of these exposures, these labels don’t tell you exactly how much may be in the product. And it’s the dose that makes the poison.

But back to chocolate: Consumer Reports found that the sampled chocolate exceeded the Prop 65 limits.

How Does Lead and Cadmium Get Into Chocolate?

There are a few different ways that lead and cadmium end up in chocolate. One is through the soil – cocoa plants suck up cadium through the soil. (This is one of many reasons why the soil we grow our food in is critical!).

Lead contaminates chocolate after harvesting. As cocoa beans are dried and fermented in the sunshine, they accumulate lead from dirt and dust. Lead contamination also occurs during processing, manufacturing and shipping.

The amount of lead and cadmium can also depend on the part of the bean you’re consuming – the shell and the nibs can contain more, and the cacao concentration (milk vs dark) plays a role too.

Is Organic Chocolate better?

Generally speaking, organic foods are beneficial to our health. In this meta-analysis of 343 studies, conventional crops had significantly higher amounts of cadmium and four times more pesticide residues than organic crops. Organics also contained far more antioxidants.

In this study of a Greek market, researchers compared cadmium and lead levels in a variety of organic and conventional foods. They found that the organic products had lower cadmium and lead levels than the conventional. (Interestingly, non-certified organic foods had more cadmium and lead than both certified organic and conventional!)

Based on this, one might assume that organic chocolate is always going to be the healthier choice. Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of research on organic chocolate. One study noted no difference in cadmium levels between organic and conventional. In the Consumer Reports testing, organic versions weren’t safer either.

It’s also worth noting that the USDA Organic label/seal doesn’t require companies to test their final products for heavy metals. They do, however, have rules and regulations about prohibiting heavy metal use during production.

Given the overall benefit of organics, and the reduced exposure to pesticides, I’d still opt for organic, fair-trade chocolate when possible.

The Health Benefits of Chocolate

Chocolate is in my top 12 most nutritious foods.

It’s rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, minerals and beneficial fats. It is high in energy-supportive iron and magnesium, a mineral that is fantastic for our bone and nervous system health, as well as for modulating testosterone levels.

There is a phytochemical in cocoa called phenylethylamine (PEA) that is the same substance your brain makes when you are in love. PEA also helps you remain alert and focused.

Should We Stop Eating Chocolate?

Do the risks of lead and cadmium in chocolate outweigh the benefits?

I say no. Chocolate isn’t a food we need to eliminate, unless you experience negative effects by eating it (acid reflux, caffeine overstimulation, migraines, etc.).

Heavy metals are in a wide variety of nutritious foods. Even if you never ate a single bite of chocolate (or any other sweetened treat), there are still plenty of ways you can be exposed to heavy metals in food. They are part of our naturally occurring environment, and can be found in fruits, vegetables, grains, meat, fish and more. They’re found in foods worldwide, so it’s not a localized problem either. It’s not realistic for us to stop eating everything from everywhere.

You’ll find heavy metals in water (the reason Prop 65 was initiated in the first place, and an issue that hasn’t been entirely resolved!), pollution and emissions, volcanic ash and forest fires.

I’m not saying we need to throw up our hands and quit, as there are numerous collective solutions to reduce heavy metals in our food supply and environment. But we need to keep things in perspective – and the overall benefits of eating whole foods outweigh the risks.

It’s also worth noting that California’s Prop 65 dose levels are extremely strict, and low. Yes, it’s important to be protective when it comes to chemicals. But as I mentioned earlier, labels and limits don’t tell the whole story.

My solution is to:

  1. Find the best sources of foods always, including chocolate.
  2. Support our body’s detoxification pathways.

We may be exposed to heavy metals, but exposure doesn’t automatically mean that will lead to an effect. On the bright side, lead levels in children have been declining during the last two decades.

The key is supporting our body’s ability to handle and excrete these metals. You can read more about detoxification, and myths and truths, here.

Tips for Chocolate Consumption

  1. Choose organic and fair trade.
  2. Look for safer sources of chocolate. Consumer Reports has a list of the safest brands of all the ones they tested.
  3. Ask companies for third party assays. These are reports completed by independent labs to assess heavy metal content.
  4. Don’t over consume chocolate (or any one single food for that matter).

Eating a nutrient-rich diet, exercising, drinking water, getting enough sleep, being in nature, deep breathing, pooping regularly, improving our resilience to stress, and any other healthy habit you can practice are going to massively benefit your health. Remember, an ounce of chocolate isn’t going to destroy that.