With Valentine’s Day around corner, dark chocolate’s metal levels in spotlight

Chocolates from Ashby Confections at the Aptos farmers market.
(Blaire Hobbs / Lookout Santa Cruz)

A recent report found high levels of lead and cadmium in dark chocolates, but there’s much more to those numbers and how they relate to consumer safety, Lily Belli found after talking to Santa Cruz County chocolatiers.

This story was originally featured in this week’s Lily Belli on Food newsletter. Be first the first to hear about food and drink news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Lily’s email newsletter here and text alerts here.

Less than a week before Valentine’s Day, the biggest chocolate-eating holiday of the year, a report showing high levels of lead and cadmium in dark chocolate made me rethink that heart-shaped box of treats. Consumer Reports tested 28 dark chocolate bars from brands like Hershey’s, Trader Joe’s, Ghirardelli and Dove and found dangerous heavy metals in all of them. Many of them violated California’s maximum allowable dose level for lead (0.5 micrograms) and cadmium (4.1 micrograms).

But before you swear off chocolate entirely, these numbers, coupled with headlines within the report like “Cacao’s Dark Side,” might make this information seem scarier than it really is. “I heard about it, and immediately thought it sounded sensationalized,” says Jennifer Ashby, owner of Ashby Confections in Scotts Valley. “I turned to Stephen [Beaumier of Mutari Chocolate], and realized it’s kind of silly.”

Is there lead and cadmium in chocolate? Yes, say Beaumier and his partner Katy Oursler, but not in levels that are harmful for the majority of chocolate eaters. The limits for lead and cadmium in California were set by Proposition 65, aka the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. For chemicals that can cause birth defects or reproductive harm, like lead and cadmium, the maximum allowable amount does not show the lowest amount proven to cause harm; rather, it’s based on a level of exposure that has been shown to not pose any harm to humans or laboratory animals — and then divided by 1,000 “in order to provide an ample margin of safety.” Therefore, even chocolate shown to violate these restrictions might not actually pose any harm to humans in reasonable amounts.

Through their company Mutari Chocolate, Beaumier and Oursler source cacao directly and ethically from farmers around the world for their own chocolate company and distribute it to other chocolate makers like Ashby. They point out that these heavy metals are also present, often in higher concentrations, in foods like cereal products, potatoes, leafy greens, beets and berries.

Lead and cadmium are found in nature and come from the soil where the plants are grown. Generally speaking for cacao, higher concentrations of these metals are found in soils that have been farmed for shorter amounts of time in places like South America, while lower concentrations are found in places that have been farmed for longer, like Africa. In the cacao plant, most of the metals are concentrated in the husk, which is not used to make chocolate.

Still, Oursler says chocolate makers are aware of the possibility of the presence of heavy metals in their products, and many take precautions to lower the levels as much as possible. Mutari tests its cacao frequently and adheres to the strictest standards for cadmium levels set by the European Union. It also sources from places like Uganda, which has low metal levels in the soil.

Ashby points out that once you dilute the cocoa with ingredients like dairy and sugar, the levels are even lower: “We use organic dairy and other high-quality ingredients, and it combines to create a clean product that I feel good about.”

Oursler believes that it’s good to ask questions about the quality of our food and where it comes from. At Mutari, she and Beaumier seek to empower consumers and the community to better understand chocolate’s impact on the world: “We’re happy for the conversation, as our priority is to keep our customers educated and healthy. That being said, we don’t think that this report should preclude people consuming and enjoying quality chocolate.”

Find more information and view products at mutarichocolate.com and ashbyconfections.com.