Over the years, many individuals have transitioned from milk chocolate to dark chocolate with high cocoa content in pursuit of a healthier option. However, recent news suggests that chocolate may be contaminated with cadmium and lead, with higher concentrations found in dark chocolate. Does this mean we can no longer enjoy chocolate? Analyzing the information in context reveals that the risk may not be as alarming as portrayed in many reports.

Contextualizing the Issue

In recent years, cocoa has evolved from being associated with unhealthy foods like sugary milk chocolate to being hailed as a superfood. Today, many people incorporate pure cocoa or high-cocoa content chocolate into their diets, hoping for health benefits. However, recent reports warn of the supposed dangers of consuming chocolate due to its heavy metal content, specifically cadmium and lead.

This issue gained widespread attention in 2022 and again recently, sparked by several reports published by Consumer Reports, a US magazine dedicated to consumer advocacy. These reports presented findings from analyses of cadmium and lead levels in various cocoa products, primarily dark chocolate, warning that a significant proportion of samples (around 70-80%) exhibited “excessively high” values that could pose health risks.

Not a New Discovery

Many were surprised by this news, unaware that cocoa could contain heavy metals, and questioned the source of this contamination. However, this risk is not new and has been studied for over four decades due to its potential health implications. Risk assessment typically involves four phases.

Phase 1: Hazard Identification
Identifying potential hazards associated with cocoa, including cadmium and lead, both persistent contaminants found in soil. Cadmium is absorbed by plants and accumulates as they grow, while lead accumulates in cocoa beans during post-harvest processing from soil or ambient dust.

Phase 2: Hazard Characterization
Understanding the effects of these hazards. Cadmium is classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), primarily affecting the kidneys with prolonged exposure, among other potential damages. Lead is also a probable carcinogen, causing neurotoxic effects, kidney and cardiovascular failures, severe neurological damage to fetuses during pregnancy, and even miscarriages.

Phase 3: Exposure Assessment
Evaluating exposure to these contaminants, considering factors like their concentration in cocoa, the amount consumed, and body weight.

Phase 4: Risk Characterization
Determining the probability of these hazards causing harm to health.

Based on this information, measures such as setting consumption recommendations or maximum limits for these contaminants, with a wide margin of safety, are implemented to ensure food safety. However, these limits vary between countries depending on their criteria.

Disparity in Criteria: The Case of the United States

Unlike the United States, where there’s no federal legislation setting limits for cadmium or lead content in cocoa, California has its own toxicological reference values. Consumer Reports used California’s values, such as the Maximum Allowable Dose Level (MADL) for cadmium, set at 4.1 micrograms per day, to compare with their analysis results. They found that some chocolates exceeded this limit with a single serving, prompting concern.

Disparity in Criteria: The Case of the European Union

The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) recommends a tolerable monthly intake of 25 micrograms per kilogram of body weight for cadmium. In 2021, they proposed new maximum cadmium levels for chocolate, which the EU declined to adopt, maintaining stricter limits set in 2014, primarily to protect vulnerable populations like children.

These disparities in reference values reflect differing perspectives and considerations. California’s value is based on an older study and focuses on reproductive harm, while the EU’s value considers more recent studies emphasizing renal damage, especially in children.

The Importance of Origin

Global data from the WHO indicates variations in cadmium levels in cocoa samples, with higher levels in America than Europe, possibly due to geological factors. For example, volcanic activity can elevate cadmium levels in soil, affecting cocoa grown in regions like South America.

Lead in Cocoa

Lead regulations also vary. The Codex Alimentarius sets a maximum limit of 1 mg/kg for cocoa, higher than what the US considers safe for children’s confectionery. In the EU, there are no set maximum limits for lead in cocoa, focusing on foods contributing most to lead exposure.

No Cause for Alarm, but Action Needed

Currently, chocolate and cocoa consumed in Europe are deemed safe, with cadmium and lead levels posing no health concerns. However, food regulations aren’t static and may change over time due to production, dietary patterns, or scientific advancements.

Authorities collaborate with producers to reduce metal contaminant levels in cocoa through measures like sourcing attention, good production practices, and long-term strategies. While occasional reports raise concerns, it’s crucial to rely on comprehensive assessments and regulatory frameworks to ensure food safety and public health.


In conclusion, while recent reports may raise alarms about heavy metal contamination in chocolate, a closer examination reveals a nuanced reality. By understanding the origins of these contaminants, assessing exposure risks, and adhering to regulatory standards, we can enjoy chocolate responsibly without compromising our health. It’s essential for consumers to stay informed, trust evidence-based information, and advocate for robust food safety measures. As science evolves, so too should our approach to ensuring the safety and quality of our food supply.

By Danny