By Don “Doc” Sanders
If you’re like me, your chocolate consumption goes up maybe 200% during the holiday season. Truffles, Marie’s (a local favorite of mine, if you’re still in the gift-giving mood), Ghirardelli’s, Chocolate Turtles, Chocolate Drops, White Chocolate, Belgian Chocolates – how many more can I name?
But aside from gaining a few pounds or messing up my complexion, why bother?
Here’s why (at the risk of knocking you off your chocolate high): Chocolates contain relatively high levels of toxic heavy metals. Of particular concern are cadmium and lead. Consumer Reports found that 23 of the 28 brands of dark chocolate bars it tested contained levels of cadmium and lead considered toxic to humans.
Verified brands included Dove, Ghirardelli, and lesser-known labels like Alter Eco and Mast. Milk chocolates also have a heavy metal contamination problem, although not as high.
At the same time, chocolate contains health-promoting flavanols, molecules that accumulate in the skin and leaves of many plants, such as fruits and vegetables. Flavanols do good things like promote the human immune response and reduce the risk of cancer.
A daily bar of chocolate from the brands I mentioned can put you above the safe dietary level for lead and cadmium established for adults. Lead is of particular concern to children who are vulnerable to developmental problems, impaired brain function, lower IQ scores, and other problems. Lead exposure in adults can cause neurological problems, high blood pressure, and an impaired immune system.
Because of these effects, lead has been banned in paint and plumbing since 1996. You may have heard about the health scandal in Flint, Michigan, which occurred when the city in 2014, as a cost-saving measure, began using the flint river. as their water source, ending the practice of purchasing pre-treated water from Detroit’s Lake Huron. This change led to dangerously high blood lead levels in the Flint children.
The water source problem was compounded by old lead-containing pipes throughout the city that had not been replaced even when lead toxicity problems in children had been reported years earlier. After this discovery, for several years the city had to provide bottled water for children and adults while a solution to lead toxicity was sought. The old water supply system could be used for showers but was not consumed. Don’t forget that everyone who owned a vehicle used leaded gasoline until it was finally banned in 1996.
While chocolate candies were the focus of Consumer Reports’ testing, heavy metals may also lurk in products like hot chocolate, brownies, ice cream, and cake mixes. Chocolate becomes contaminated when the outer shell of cocoa beans is exposed to lead-contaminated dirt and dust during harvesting and processing. There are obvious methods to prevent this type of lead contamination.
However, solving the problem of cadmium contamination is not so easy. Cadmium is commonly found in soil and is incorporated into the cocoa or cocoa bean during the growing season. Cocoa solids, the key ingredient in chocolate, is where this heavy metal hides.
Strategies being considered to decrease cadmium contamination include growing cacao plants that absorb less cadmium and replacing older cacao trees with saplings that have not yet absorbed cadmium. However, these solutions are expensive and would take years to fully implement.
As You Sow is one organization that has called for more responsibility in the chocolate industry. The recent As You Sow litigation has resulted in more investigations funded by the chocolate industry.
Before your panties go awry, don’t forget that heavy metal contamination has also been reported as a problem in organic and conventionally produced sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, and spinach.
My advice is to eat a wide variety of foods and avoid dark and light chocolate daily. And thanks to my commendable level of self-control, I ate just one small packet of M&Ms while lamenting this comment.
For more information on this topic, see https://www.everydayhealth.com/news/.