Lead in Chocolate? Really?

dag-cbeclipseMy favorite scene in MisLEAD talks about lead in chocolate and wine:

“The really bad news is, chocolate is the food item with the most lead in it.” says
Ronnie Levin (research scientist and Harvard professor) in MisLEAD: America’s Secret Epidemic

The intention behind the scene is not to demonize chocolate or wine; in the movie, Levin goes on to explain that when one industry – the California wine industry – was faced with a challenge by the State to either remove the lead from their wine or to label their product as “toxic”, they were able to quickly take the necessary actions to bring the lead-levels in California wine down by 300 parts per billion (quite a lot for a food item—lead in food & beverages is measured in parts per billion (ppb), with water considered toxic as low as 15 ppb.)

Unfortunately no public agency (not even the FDA) has challenged the candy or chocolate industry with a similar demand (as of 12/2013) and chocolate and candy are not regulated  (nor regularly tested ) by independent agencies in the way some other products are.red vines

This issue is compounded by the fact that chocolate is a highly processed food and so lead has the potential to get added (as a trace contaminant of the manufacturing process) to chocolate (and each of its ingredients) at every step along the way.

How lead ends up in chocolate:

  1. Leaded gasoline is still used in the countries where chocolate ingredients are grown (and in fact, leaded gasoline is often exempt for use in farm vehicles even in countries where it is otherwise prohibited!)
  2. The husk of the cocoa bean has been shown to be a very effective “tool” (more like a sponge) in terms of its ability to absorb lead from the air
  3. Shipping packages (industry reusable, labeled canvas bags, cartons and crates) may be painted or treated with lead-containing coatings (there is nothing regulating that)
  4. Shipping containers (the ones the size of train cars) and container-ships used for international transport may be legally painted with lead-paint (even in the U.S., lead paint has only been outlawed for “residential use” )
  5. Equipment & machines for grinding and processing food (at every step of the process) may have leaded components that – as they wear – cause traces of lead to be mixed into the food product that they are processing
  6. Not every batch of imported food ingredient (cocoa beans, sugar, cocoa butter, etc.) is tested for toxins (only random, small batches by manufactures that voluntarily opt to watch for this sort of thing.)

Studies have shown that the more processed a chocolate item is, the more lead it has in it.

So what do I (Tamara) do?

Well – I personally avoid transnational conglomerate brands like Nestle’s or Hershey’s. I try to stick with organic and local small-batch manufacturers [and as you can see from the above referenced Dagoba recall, even buying organic doesn’t necessarily solve the problem!]  I buy ingredients and make my own chocolate treats (so I limit my consumption of processed chocolate bars and stick with organic cocoa powder and organic roasted cocoa nibs from local companies that I trust.)

One thing I have personally chosen to avoid (based on theory and not so much based on any particular study I have read):  Chocolate that is processed in third-world countries (often marketed as “Fair-Trade Certifed”* as an economic stimulus activity (to support local farmers, etc.)) actually concerns me. The processing equipment in these third-world countries is less likely to be modern, high-tech stainless steel, contaminant free, state-of-the-art equipment. It is more likely to be older, recycled, re-furbished, re-purposed, and re-used… in the name of “sustainability.” Don’t get me wrong – I am very pro-sustainability, but when it comes to food processing it’s just a fact:  older equipment is more likely to have components made of lead or painted with lead paint. Leaded components are cheaper and likely easier to find, but they wear faster. They are probably easier to replace than stainless steel. But where is the “wear” from those components going over years of use?  Right into our food.

Remember – it just takes a microscopic amount of lead to poison a child, and lead-poisoning causes permanent brain damage, learning disabilities, behavioral disorders and life-long health challenges.

While the amount of lead in one particular chocolate bar might not be especially concerning in itself, it is our aggregate body burden of environmental toxins that we do need to keep an eye on (and is that aggregate exposure that is causing [or contributing to] long-term health impacts like heart disease, kidney disease, osteoporosis, accelerated cognitive decline / early-onset Alzheimer’s and more.) The only way to keep an eye on this sort of thing as consumers is to be aware of what we are putting into our bodies.

Thanks for reading.

If you appreciate my work and the information I share, please consider making even a small monthly contribution via my “subscribe” link, to help me be able to continue to help other families, by protecting their children from lead in their homes, schools and environment.


Tamara Rubin

*Note – I also appreciate “Fair Trade” practices, but I think we need to examine these “Fair Trade” relationships and ask the U.S. companies that are the stewards of these relationships to make sure that protecting consumers from environmental toxicity is at the top of their list of priorities (regardless of the environmental regulations [or lack thereof] in the countries with the industries and farming they are supporting.)

Image below from the Smithsonian Website


8 Responses to Lead in Chocolate? Really?

  1. Lindsay December 10, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    Great post and horrifying. Can you elaborate on the shipping container information you have above? For the sacks that the cocoa is transported in, are there studies showing they have lead in them? Same for the shipping containers painted with lead – are there reports showing this info? Curious to learn more… Thanks!

  2. lynn hasselberger December 11, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    Just happened to be eating dark chocolate when I stumbled upon this. Ack!

    • Tamara December 13, 2013 at 7:54 am #

      HAHAHAHAHA! – Thanks for reading and sharing Lynn!

  3. rachel December 11, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    This is so interesting, Tamara. I’m very pro fair trade, but I hadn’t thought about this side of the argument. Food for thought–pun intended.

    • Tamara December 13, 2013 at 7:53 am #

      Hi Rachel! I am very “pro-Fair Trade” too, I just try to buy food items that are grown as a Fair-Trade item, but processed locally (if they are processed at all.) So sourcing Fair-Trade ingredients I think is a good thing. I edited the post, revising the language to better articulate my position on that since you read it – and I think we really need to call on our “Fair Trade” industry sponsors (the companies buying and selling the Fair Trade products in the U.S. markets) to incorporate meaningful initiatives to reduce/eliminate sources of environmental toxicity. Unfortunately I don’t think it is high up on the list for some of them, as it is a bit of a blind-spot, just as many “Green Builders” are thinking about longevity and energy savings—but not enough about environmental toxicity and end up doing stupid things like integrating old/reused/re-purposed building components into their new “Green” structures and those components are often either covered in lead-paint or have enough lead-residue on them (folks don’t realize that lead residue is virtually impossible to remove from the grain of even professionally chemically stripped wood for instance!) to create a continuing dust hazard. We are all doing so much, but there is also so much room for growth & increased awareness, understanding and an ever more expansive/enlightened sense of responsible stewardship.

      Yours, Tamara

  4. Suzanne October 26, 2016 at 1:54 pm #

    So have you found any brands that you feel comfortable with? I love chocolate and just trying to find it organic and without soy & dairy is a feat in itself…let alone adding heavy metals to the list 🙁

    • suzanna December 28, 2017 at 9:49 pm #

      any recommendations yet?

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