Lead in Your Chocolate: Do We Need to Worry?

lead in chocolateJust as millions of people were getting ready to enjoy the Easter long weekend, the consumer health watchdog As You Sow released findings on levels of lead and cadmium in chocolate products.

Specifically, the watchdog’s testing has shown that numerous chocolate products sold in California (35 of 50 tested) had levels of lead and cadmium higher than those set by the state’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, also known as “Proposition 65.”

As You Sow has filed notices against the relevant chocolate manufacturers, including Trader Joe’s, The Hershey Company, Whole Foods, Godiva, and Mars.

Lead and Cadmium: Quick Facts

  • Lead is a neurotoxin and can cause IQ impairment.
  • Cadmium can cause kidney damage if low levels are ingested over a prolonged period, and it’s a probable carcinogen.
  • Both substances are naturally found in soil and in many plants (like cocoa beans) as a result.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not consider any level of lead to be safe for children, but uses five micrograms per deciliter of blood to determine if a child’s lead level is abnormally high.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows a limit of .1 parts per million of lead in chocolate. In other words, just one-tenth of one millionth of a chocolate bar can be lead.
  • The FDA does not have set limits on cadmium in food, but limits bottled water levels to 0.005 mg/L.

The CDC’s stance requires a little more elaboration. Although the CDC doesn’t consider lead to be a good thing in any amount, we all have some amount of lead in our bodies so the CDC focuses more on making sure children don’t have lead levels that suggest an unusually strong source.

Proposition 65: Quick Facts

  • California’s Proposition 65 law requires that product be marked with a warning if they contain more than what the state considers an acceptable level of certain substances.
  • You may have seen these labels; they read something like “This product contains a substance known to the state of California to be a possible carcinogen.” The wording changes based on the product or chemical in question.
  • The levels that require warning labels under Proposition 65 are much, much stricter than those the FDA considers safe, often dividing the FDA limit by 1,000 to get to what it considers an acceptable amount.
  • Proposition 65 also permits lawsuits against companies that do not have the necessary labeling. This is what makes it such an annoyance to businesses and a big boon for trial lawyers.

Bottom Line

Assuming the testing methods As You Sow used are verified, it appears that certain chocolate products have lead and/or cadmium levels above those preferred by the state of California. If the results are confirmed, then the affected companies will need to make labeling changes.

However, consumers don’t necessarily need to be overly concerned even if these results do prove to be true. There is no known or established risk to consumer health from the examined chocolates.

There are two key points to remember when examining As You Sow’s findings. The first is that the dose makes the poison. Almost anything can kill you in a large enough amount and even things like lead or cadmium can be harmless if exposure is below certain thresholds. The second is that the chocolate products were found only to exceed Proposition 65’s limits, not the FDA’s levels, which are backed by more research. The fact that certain chocolate products contain lead or cadmium in excess of California’s extremely strict law (while remaining well within the FDA’s researched safety standards) doesn’t translate into danger for consumers. This situation is, at its heart, a labeling issue, not a consumer safety one.

Sources for Today’s Article:
“Toxic Chocolate in Easter Bunnies, Eggs, and More Lead and Cadmium Found in Trader Joe’s, Hershey’s, and Other Chocolates,” As You Sow web site, March 23, 2016; http://www.asyousow.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/release_toxic_chocolate_easter_bunnies_eggs_and_more_20160322.pdf, last accessed March 28, 2016.
“What Do Parents Need to Know to Protect Their Children?” CDC web site, last updated March 15, 2016; http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/acclpp/blood_lead_levels.htm, last accessed March 28, 2016.
“Supporting Document for Recommended Maximum Level for Lead in Candy Likely to Be Consumed Frequently by Small Children,” FDA web site, last updated June 5, 2015; http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm172050.htm#lead, last accessed March 28, 2016.
“Public Health Statement for Cadmium,” Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry web site, September 2012; http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=46&tid=15, last accessed March 28, 2016.
“Proposition 65 in Plain Language!” Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment web site, last updated February 2013; http://oehha.ca.gov/prop65/background/p65plain.html, last accessed March 28, 2016.