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Wait . . . Is Dark Chocolate Bad For You?

Recent studies show that most dark chocolate bars contain unhealthy levels of lead and cadmium. Should you worry?
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Published Feb. 14, 2023.

While the health benefits of eating dark chocolate have been touted for decades, in the last few years, some attention has been given to the risks. 

Recently, Consumer Reports published an article with data indicating that many dark chocolate bars contain lead and cadmium at levels much higher than most health experts recommend.

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How Are Lead and Cadmium Dangerous to Your Health?

Lead is a heavy metal that is of particular concern to pregnant people and children; it can affect a baby or child’s cognitive development. In adults, it’s been linked to greater risk for cardiovascular diseases, including high blood pressure. Cadmium is a heavy metal that may raise the risk of certain types of cancers and also high blood pressure. 

How Do Lead and Cadmium Get into Chocolate?

Both metals are found in the cocoa solids that make up any chocolate product. Cadmium is taken up by the cacao plant from the soil in which the plant is grown, and lead gets into the cacao after it’s harvested, most likely from contaminated industrial dust and dirt that settles on the beans. 

The more cocoa solids a type of chocolate has, the more lead and cadmium it is likely to have. This means that dark chocolate and cocoa powder, which have more cocoa solids than other types of chocolate, are of particular concern.

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Do You Have to Stop Eating Chocolate?

So what’s a responsible chocolate-loving consumer to do? To find out, we talked to Joseph Bressler, associate professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University. In general, he told us, everyone should try to limit their exposure to these heavy metals as much as possible, since they accumulate in our bodies over time and don’t go away, raising the probability that they can cause harm. 

Lead and cadmium can be found in a variety of different foods, including lettuce and spinach, though chocolate is currently thought to be one of the greatest offenders. Realistically, it probably isn’t possible to avoid all exposure to these metals. But the more you can limit your exposure, the better. 

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That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to cut out chocolate entirely. As Bressler explained, “The dose makes the poison.” That is, the amount you consume determines how much of a health risk any food will be.

It’s probably fine to enjoy dark chocolate in moderation, though pregnant people and children should be especially careful about their consumption, as they are at greatest risk. If you really need a lot of chocolate, you might want to consider subbing in milk chocolate for some of your dark chocolate, as it has lower levels of cocoa solids, and thus probably lower levels of heavy metals. 

On a more hopeful note, the chocolate industry is aware of and concerned about the presence of heavy metals in their products. As Consumer Reports notes, companies are actively trying to figure out how to lower their levels of lead and cadmium, enacting a variety of strategies to monitor and improve environmental and manufacturing conditions. We’ll continue to keep an eye on the problem in the years ahead.

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