Lead + Cadmium + Chocolate Does NOT Have to Equal Fear

Lead + Cadmium + Chocolate Does NOT Have to Equal Fear

The words lead, cadmium, and chocolate in the same sentence are a perfect storm for clickbait. Add kids into the mix and the topic is pretty much guaranteed to lead the 11 o’clock news because the optics are scary.

Sadly, sensationalism sells and gets readers’ eyeballs engaged more than nuanced takes. And that’s what happened when Consumer Reports published its analysis lead and cadmium levels in 28 popular and fine chocolate bars.

Lead and Cadmium Could Be in Your Dark Chocolate - Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports tested 28 dark chocolate bars and found cadmium and lead in all of them. Here’s how to limit your heavy metal exposure.

Most of the bars (23 of the 28) had lead levels higher than the Maximum Allowable Dose Levels (“MADL”) for lead or cadmium allowed by California’s Proposition 65. This law requires businesses to “provide warnings to Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.”


Food toxicity issues involve complex science and are loaded with all kinds of emotions (more so with chocolate than with spinach), so I’ll get to the bottom line right away:

How much is too much?
There is no identified “safe level” of lead or cadmium in the blood. Still, some amount of lead and cadmium in our blood is inevitable and low levels are not known to cause harm.
Are you at risk of cadmium or lead toxicity?
From chocolate? Not likely. You get a lot more of each from the rest of your diet and probably always have. You probably don’t need to worry – unless there is some other confounding dietary, genetic, or medical factor.
Food overall isn’t close to being a chief source of lead and cadmium exposure.
But there are some simple steps you can take to mitigate your absorption of each. (This is key, it’s not so much what you consume, what matters is what is stored in the body.)

The Real Story on Lead, Cadmium, and Chocolate

It’s not that there IS no story, but rather a poorly presented one that scares consumers unnecessarily. So it’s vital to understand exactly why we shouldn’t be alarmed.

The human body has no essential need for either lead or cadmium. We don’t need them in our food. But, lead or cadmium have always existed in the environment and they’re elements that the body can’t break apart into anything simpler.
The more we know, the more confidence we have.

Terms To Know: FDA’s “IRL” & California’s “MADL”

No, IRL does not mean In Real Life, well at least not in this case. The FDA has what it calls an Interim Reference Level (IRL) for lead (link below).

Updated interim reference levels for dietary lead to support FDA’s Closer to Zero action plan - PubMed
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) utilizes a blood lead reference value (BLRV) to identify children with elevated blood lead levels (BLLs). At or above the BLRV, the CDC recommends actions be taken to reduce children’s BLLs. In 2021, the CDC updated its BLRV to 3.5 μg/dL. To align…

It is “interim” because the FDA continues to study the effects of lead on people and so has net set a final reference level.

  • The interim CDC blood lead reference level is 3.5 micrograms/deciliter (“mcg/dL”; a deciliter is 100 milliliters or 1/10 of a liter) or less, a level NOT associated with negative health impact.
  • This corresponds to a dietary lead intake of 22 mcg/day in children, 88 mcg/day in women of childbearing age, and 125 mcg/day for other adults.
The unit of weight microgram can also be represented as µg; e.g., 3.5 µg and 3.5 µg/day.
The FDA wants a huge cushion, so it cut this dietary lead intake level by 90% to set the IRL: 2.2 mcg/day in children, 8.8 mcg/day in women of childbearing age, and 12.5 mcg/day for the rest of us.

California’s MADL sets a limit for the most lead you should be exposed to in a day from food. Prop 65 acknowledges that the MADL is extremely conservative – California mandates stricter limits than the FDA, but California regulators are not clear as to why the limits were chosen.

  • California’s MADL for lead is 0.5 mcg/day for everyone regarding of age or body weight – less than 1/4th of the FDA level for children of 2.2 mcg/day.

The MADL appears to be oddly derived. Some keen detective work by the American Council on Science and Health found that California took the limit permitted for lead in workplace air then divided it by 1000 to reach the MADL for food.

There doesn’t appear to be a scientific basis for taking an atmospheric standard for lead and converting it to a food standard.
Is There a Bittersweet Risk of Eating Dark Chocolate?
The December 19 Consumer Reports headline, “Lead and Cadmium Could be in Your Dark Chocolate,” has chocoholics everywhere in great pain. But a closer look at the article shows that you may not have to give up your guilty pleasure.

Why did the Consumer Reports analysis choose California’s standard, rather than FDA’s? It’s anyone’s guess, as stricter standards aren’t necessarily better, but they can look better politically. One hypothesis is that stricter standards mean more foods won’t meet them, making for more sensational clickbait-y headlines, which means more traffic, which means more exposure for the manufactured controversy, and possibly increased revenue.

How Do Lead & Cadmium Get Into Food?

  • Lead can be present in soil and/or settle on food from piston airplane exhaust fumes (automotive gasoline has been lead-free for years), It can also find its way into cacao post harvest during the drying and fermenting stages from contact with soil and airborne dust.
  • Cacao trees are “bio-accumulators,” meaning they take up cadmium that’s naturally present in soil, so cadmium is also present in the tree and leaves, not just the seeds. Central and South American soils, which produce some very fine cacao beans, tend to have more cadmium than West African soils, but this is not necessarily the case.

More common food sources of lead and cadmium in many people’s diets include leafy greens such as lettuce and spinach, root vegetables, and grains like rice and wheat, all of which can bio-accumulate lead and cadmium.

Ask An Expert:
Are Consumers at Risk From Lead & Cadmium in Food?

There’s good news:

“Levels of lead in foods and water have been decreasing dramatically since the removal of lead from gasoline and removal of lead from tin cans,” said noted food toxicologist Dr. Bernadene Magnuson. “The presence of Pb and Cd naturally occurring in chocolate has been known for many years. Levels have been monitored,” she noted, and “if you compare levels in 2014 with those in 2022, have seen continual reduction.”
Source: FDA

According to FDA data, between 1980 and 2016, daily dietary exposures to lead for 1-3 year-olds decreased 97%. Chocolate had nothing to do with this downward trend. Rather, there were various industry efforts that contributed to the decline. Lead was phased out of gasoline, so fewer lead fumes to inhale or settle onto food crops. Plus, the food industry removed lead from the cans used to package food.

The chief sources of exposure to lead?  California’s publication, “Prop 65 Warnings: Lead and Lead Compoundsdoes not list any foods as major concerns. Instead, the warning notes lead-based paint, drinking water from pipes and faucets containing lead, and some crystal glassware and tableware containing lead. Chocolate is not mentioned.

California’s own publication, “No Significant Risk Levels (NSRLs) For Proposition 65 Lead And Lead Compounds” indicates an oral intake of 15 mcg/day – 30 times higher than the MADL of 0.5 mcg/day – has “no significant risk level.”

Among the 28 bars Consumer Reports tested, the highest lead level was 1.9 mcg/oz. This is over California’s MADL but far lower than the FDA level of 8.8 mcg/day for women of childbearing age. As for toddlers, I don’t know how many toddlers, or even many adolescents, are eating an ounce of chocolate with 88% cocoa content on a regular basis.

A primary route of exposure to lead and cadmium is through the lungs. Context and perspective are crucial here. And those were missing in the Consumer Reports article.

The Author Asks: “I Eat Dark Chocolate Daily: Am I At Risk From Lead Exposure?”

Keith Ayoob, the primary author of this article, wondered, “As a chocolate lover – I eat about about 50 grams of dark chocolate in addition to between 1/3 – 1/2 cup of cocoa powder every day. Am I at risk?

“As with cadmium, the only way to know for sure if I needed to be concerned was to perform a specific test for lead. So I had a sample of my blood sent to a national lab (Quest Diagnostics) for analysis of my blood lead level (BLL):”

  • BLL reference range: <3.5 mcg/dL
  • My BLL?: <1.0 mcg/dL

Cadmium in Chocolate: The Other Heavy Metal

As an element in soil, cadmium has always been in many whole foods, nearly everywhere food is grown in the world. Yes, it’s also present in chocolate and cocoa but the news is good here, too.

Cadmium toxicity from food is extremely rare and seldom comes from food. I’ve written before on this issue for TCL [links below], and the Consumer Reports analysis did nothing to change my position on the issue.

Cadmium in Chocolate
Exposure doesn’t equal toxicity! Humans have been exposed to cadmium since time began.
TheChocolateLife::LIVE – CADMIUM 2.0
Episode 61 streams live from 12:00 EDT Friday, Sept 30 w/ special guest and ChocolateLife contributor Keith Ayoob. Join us as we explore the topic of cadmium in chocolate in depth – with a close look at an influential source of (mis)information on this topic.

“The top dietary cadmium sources in the US,” Keith continues, “are  foods like leafy vegetables, potatoes, legumes and nuts that are considered healthy. I eat plenty of these foods and encourage others to do the same. Even though I consume large amounts of cocoa powder and dark chocolate daily, my tested level of cadmium was square in the middle. Not even close to being a concern.”

How To Reduce Your Risk of Exposure From Lead & Cadmium

  1. Don’t smoke or inhale other people’s smoke. Tobacco smoke exposes you to lots of cadmium.
  2. Eat a healthy diet! Especially get enough iron, calcium, vitamin C, and protein; nutrients that help mitigate lead absorption.
  3. Get your nutrients from food first, rather than supplementing with the above. Refer to the infographic below with the link to download the full PDF below that.

Primary Conclusion

Consumer Reports' decision to not put the results of their analysis into appropriate context makes it very troubling.

Should There Be Warning Labels on Chocolate Bars And Products?

“Not according to Dr. Magnuson,” says Keith.

She noted, “Lead and cadmium are present in so many foods that we would need to put a warning label on pretty much everything from soup to nuts.”

Have thoughts to share or questions to ask?

Leave them in the comments.
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