Addressing Concerns about Heavy Metals in Ceremonial Cacao

Addressing Concerns about Heavy Metals in Ceremonial Cacao

(Published 1/18/2023. Updated 1/31/2023)

Recently a lot of concern has arisen about the presence of heavy metals in chocolate and cacao.

In late 2022, the publication Consumer Reports (CR) tested many popular brands of chocolate and then ran an article claiming that most of them contained concerning levels of heavy metals. [1]

This is an important subject that Soul Lift Cacao has been aware of and calmly keeping an eye on for years. Based on our expertise, we think that the risks are not as severe as this article has led the public to believe.

While there are plenty of reasons to avoid industrial chocolate, it's a bit of a misconception to think this is an "industrial chocolate versus ceremonial cacao" issue. (Plus people use the term "ceremonial cacao" to mean different things.)

The numbers don't vary that much with cacao in general, so this has more to do with the amount and frequency of consumption.

Yet after repeatedly examining the numbers, we haven't seen a single cacao or chocolate product in the world that we believe would be dangerous for most adults to have in moderation.

The heavy metal content does matter, but in order to truly understand it we have to look deeper and build enough context that it would be meaningful to the average shopper.

It’s a little known fact that trace amounts of heavy metals occur naturally in many foods. [2] Cacao (the original form of chocolate) isn’t unusual in that way, even if the cacao is grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers.

In the case of cacao, reports say that cadmium uptake can occur if the soil is too acidic, whereas lead tends to come from the processing. But either way, these are naturally occurring in the environment.

The reason for concern is that heavy metals accumulate in the body, and in large amounts they can potentially cause or contribute to major health issues. It’s not really about a single serving of chocolate, but about potential accumulation over time.

In 2020 we began having all our cacao varieties tested for heavy metals by an unbiased, third-party laboratory. Yet it was strange that the lab was not willing to provide interpretation on the results.

We later discovered that there’s no single standard for what is safe or not safe in terms of the concentration or amount of lead and cadmium in chocolate.

The FDA advises a lead limit of 0.1 ppm (i.e., parts per million, or micrograms of the heavy metal per gram of food, i.e., µ/g), and the European Union (EU) Commission advises a cadmium limit of 0.8 ppm. [3, 4, 5]

We’re proud to say that all our cacao varieties fall generally in these ranges. [6]

CR doesn’t explain that there’s not a universally agreed upon standard for heavy metals in food or that they're only using California Proposition 65 (aka Prop 65) standards for evaluation. This is part of what limits the article’s context and makes it prone to sensationalism.

Prop 65 appears to be one of the strictest systems in the world, and definitely more so than standards set by the FDA and EU Commission.

Technically Prop 65 only applies to products and consumers in California. However, because California residents can order products off of our website, we do take Prop 65 into account as well.

Interestingly, the 2017 legal settlement that led to the creation of California’s advisory system ruled on limits that were actually higher than the current FDA and EU Commission amounts. Those were 0.225 ppm for lead and 0.960 ppm for cadmium, for products with 95% or more cacao. [7] And these are the standards we are most comfortable following in terms of whether we decide to bring a cacao variety onto the line-up.

It’s also relevant to note that Prop 65 limits (which are now advised in micrograms per day rather than ppm) are standardized for all foods; they’re not specific to cacao or chocolate.

Currently California has a limit of 0.5 micrograms of lead per day, and 4.1 micrograms of cadmium per day. [8]

Per ounce of cacao, that’s only about 18% of the FDA and EU Commission advised limits. [9] Like we said, Prop 65 is a very strict system.

Consider this example: even if a product has 200% the daily Prop 65 limit it means, under that system, having a serving every other day could be considered totally safe.

In the case of ceremonial cacao, we’ve always recommended enjoying it a few days a week and taking some days off. There are a variety of reasons, like making sure we’re enjoying cacao with intention, and not misusing it for a jolt of energy. Yet many people only have cacao or chocolate once per week, or even once per month.

Ultimately, truth is context-specific. If context is limited, then things are necessarily less true because we’re not seeing the big picture. And when health is a factor, people are more likely to go into an unnecessary fear response.

One thing that Prop 65 doesn’t take into account is bioavailability – that is, how much of the heavy metals could actually be absorbed into body tissue after ingesting chocolate. The findings of a 2010 study suggest that the bioavailability of lead and cadmium in cacao products is actually relatively low. [10] One study found that 10-50% of the cadmium was bioavailable, whereas the lead was less than 10% bioavailable.

One study doesn’t make something a hard fact, but we think there needs to be more research and discussion about the bioavailability factor, especially since Prop 65 limits aren’t set specifically for cacao and chocolate.

It’s also important to look closely at Prop 65, which has advisories regarding the possibility of both cancer and reproductive harm (that is, harm which could occur to a fetus during development in the womb). [8] Limits regarding cancer are published as No Significant Risk Levels (NSRL), whereas limits regarding reproductive harm are published as Maximum Allowable Dose Levels (MADL).

California’s NSRL for lead is considerably high at 15 micrograms, compared to the MADL amount at 0.5 micrograms. We haven’t seen any cacao or chocolate with more than 5 micrograms of lead even in a “ceremonial serving” (containing 1.5oz or 42g of cacao), which would be about 10 times the MADL. But most people are not having a ceremonial serving more than a couple times per month, so we interpret that to be still within safe levels (viewing a month as 30 days average).

And the amounts of lead in cacao simply don’t pose a risk for cancer, if we’re going by CA’s NSRL. For that someone would have to have more than 3 ceremonial servings every day for a long time, which we don’t believe is physically possible.

For cadmium, the MADL of 4.1 micrograms per day is the only CA oral advisory (the NSRL for cadmium is based on possible inhalation). But the average we’ve seen in even a ceremonial serving was about 4 times that amount. So again, as long as it’s used in moderation, it’s probably not going to be a huge issue.

Since reproductive harm is the most relevant advisory, the main time this could be a legitimate concern is during pregnancy. But it doesn't seem to be like alcohol, where total abstinence is necessary. It’s more a matter of moderation and being careful about product choice. Although, articles on the subject also advise children and the elderly to use higher caution about heavy metal exposure.

We believe that more research and interpretation need to be done for the general public, because it appears to be a body of knowledge that's still emerging. If you’re still concerned, we recommend consulting a medical professional.

Since we value transparency, if a serving of any product falls outside the Prop 65 limits per day, we list that on the product page and, for shipments going to California, on the packaging.

While the concern over this specific subject seems exaggerated, we do disapprove of chocolate companies choosing to ignore this issue altogether.

And perhaps more alarming, we have already found two other cacao companies “cooking the books” to avoid the required labeling even though their published heavy metal content is in violation of the Prop 65 limits.

Here's the breakdown of test results on the pure cacao varieties we are carrying as of January 2023.

Regarding Prop 65, we think it puts in in a more meaningful context to look at how many days per week someone could have a serving and not go over the total advisories.

Like we said above, with cacao and chocolate it's not really about one serving. It's best to look at the big picture and think about dietary practices over time.

One interesting takeaway has been a debunking of the theory that cacao grown closer to volcanoes will have a higher amount of heavy metals. In fact the varieties grown closest to active volcanoes had lower numbers overall.

If you'd prefer to buy a product that doesn't have a Prop 65 warning, then we suggest Lavalove Cacao.

We will continue to do everything in our power to keep our products safe for you, so that you can gain the most possible benefit when you enjoy them.

And we believe that greater understanding leads to peace of mind. We hope this gives you some of that.

Find answers for more of your cacao questions on our FAQ page

 


REFERENCES:

[1] "Lead and Cadmium Could Be in Your Dark Chocolate" by Kevin Loria. Consumers Reports. Published 12/15/2022. Accessed 1/18/2023. https://www.consumerreports.org/health/food-safety/lead-and-cadmium-in-dark-chocolate-a8480295550/

[2] https://time.com/6243073/heavy-metals-dark-chocolate-food/

[3] 1 ppm = 1 milligram per kilogram, or 1 microgram per gram: https://www.toppr.com/ask/question/concentration-1-microgram-per-gram-is-x-ppm-then-the-value-of-x-is/

[4] FDA on Lead: https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/guidance-industry-lead-candy-likely-be-consumed-frequently-small-children
Note: This statement is about candy. It doesn’t specifically mention chocolate or cocoa, and it is specifically an advisory regarding children.

[5] EU Commission on Cadmium: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/eli/reg/2021/1323/oj#ntr5-L_2021288EN.01001301-E0005
Chocolate with ≥ 50 % total dry cocoa solids = 0.8 mg/kg (ppm)

EU Commission on Lead: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/eli/reg/2021/1317/oj
Doesn’t specifically mention cocoa or chocolate

[6] The only exception is La Noche, which has had an average lead result of 0.138 ppm based on two tests so far. Even though this is a small deviation from the FDA advisory, we are already working with the collective who makes the cacao using ancient traditional methods, to bring this number down. We will update on the progress.

[7] Interim levels from 2017 ruling: https://grimaldilawoffices.com/proposition-65-settlement-may-establish-new-industry-standard-lead-cadmium-chocolate/

[8] CA on Cadmium: https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/chemicals/cadmium

CA on Lead: https://oehha.ca.gov/proposition-65/chemicals/lead-and-lead-compounds

[9] 0.5 micrograms of lead / 28g of food = 0.018 ppm. 0.100 is the FDA lead advisory. 0.018 / 0.100 = 0.18 * 100 = 18%

4.1 micrograms of cadmium / 28g of food = 0.146 ppm (i.e., micrograms per gram). 0.800 ppm is the EU Commission cadmium advisory. 0.146 / 0.800 = 0.1825 * 100 = 18.25%

[10] Concentrations and bioavailability of cadmium and lead in cocoa powder and related products. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0265203031000077888

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice.



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