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Tests find 'concerning' levels of heavy metals in chocolate products

Researchers looked for the presence of lead and cadmium, the two metals most commonly found in cacao products, as well as mercury and arsenic.
Tests find 'concerning' levels of heavy metals in chocolate products
Posted at 4:58 PM, Oct 26, 2023

We learned last year from Consumer Reports’ testing that dark chocolate can be contaminated with heavy metals. Now, the nonprofit said those heavy metals have been found in other types of chocolate, as well as products made with cocoa powder such as brownie and cake mixes. 

The organization tested 48 different products in seven different categories: cocoa powder, chocolate chips, milk chocolate bars and mixes for brownies, chocolate cake and hot chocolate. Researchers looked for the presence of lead and cadmium, the two most commonly found in cacao products, as well as mercury and arsenic. 

Consumer Reports said they found concerning levels of lead and cadmium in a third of the products tested. None of the products posed a risk of arsenic or mercury exposure, Consumer Reports said. 

The scientists measured heavy metal content against California’s standard levels because there are no federal limits for the amount of lead and cadmium most foods can contain. 

“Every product we tested had detectable amounts of lead and cadmium,” said James E. Rogers, director and acting head of product safety testing at Consumer Reports. “Sixteen of the 48 products had amounts above CR’s levels of concern for at least one of the heavy metals — in some cases more than twice our limit — but we did find safer options in each category of chocolate products.”

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The results from the hot chocolate product testing were perhaps the most surprising, considering the mixes include sugar and other ingredients in addition to cocoa powder. But four of the six mixes Consumer Reports tested exceeded their limit for lead, including Great Value (Walmart) Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa Mix, Nestlé Rich Milk Chocolate Hot Cocoa Mix, Starbucks Hot Cocoa Classic Mix and Trader Joe’s Organic Hot Cocoa Mix. 

For chocolate chips, only two of the products tested had high lead content — Hu Dark Chocolate Gems and Good & Gather (Target) Semi-Sweet Mini Chocolate Chips — according to Consumer Reports. 

Only three of the brownie and cake mixes by Consumer Reports showed high levels of lead. 

Hershey’s unsweetened cocoa powder and Droste cacao powder were the only two in their category that tested high for lead content, Consumer Reports said. 

None of the products tested in the milk chocolate bar category had high levels of lead or cadmium, according to Consumer Reports. 

Research indicates that lead and cadmium get into cocoa in different ways, Consumer Reports said. For cadmium, it appears that the cocoa plant takes it up from the soil. Lead can be deposited on the cocoa beans after harvest, potentially from dust and soil as beans dry outdoors. 

The metals are both found in the cocoa solids — which, along with cocoa butter, make up cacao. Consumer Reports said that’s why products rich in cocoa solids, such as dark chocolate, tend to be higher in those metals.

Consumer Reports said heavy metals linked to serious health problems can be found in many foods and drinking water, so it is important to know which foods contain them to limit your overall intake. 

The organization is now calling on Hershey, the largest chocolate maker in the U.S., to make their products safer. 

While Hershey did not respond to Consumer Reports' requests on their most recent research, the nonprofit’s director of food policy, Brian Ronholm, said, "Earlier this year, a Hershey executive stated that the company continues to look for ways to remove more of the metals through additional cleaning and alternate sourcing. We would like for them to honor that commitment."

Consumer Reports has now started an online petition asking Hershey to publicly commit to a timeline showing how it would reduce heavy metals in its products. 

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