Dark chocolate studies spark confusion for consumers

OSWEGO, N.Y. – Recent reports of multiple chocolate brands having high levels of lead and cadmium in their dark varieties have had mixed effects on chocolate lovers and businesses alike. 

Consumer Reports published a study on Dec. 9, 2022 discussing how different chocolate brands contained lead and cadmium in greater quantities than California’s Maximum Allowable Dose Levels (MADL). For lead, that quantity was 0.5 micrograms (mcg) and for cadmium it was 4.1mcg. One microgram is one millionth of a gram, or .001mcg. 

Amy Lear is the owner of Man in the Moon Candies in downtown Oswego. The store is currently full of chocolate bunnies and chicks in all varieties, including dark.

“Our chocolate is made by a major manufacturer that complies with all FDA requirements, all food safety requirements,” Lear said. The store gets its chocolate through Peter’s Chocolate, which is mainly sold wholesale to confectioners. It used to be produced out of the Nestle factory in Fulton, up until its closing in 2011, according to Lear. 

In terms of the heavy metal studies impacting customers’ decisions, “I certainly hope not,” Lear said. 

“I think that when you get into micrograms and that sort of thing, you’d be surprised what kind of stuff is in your food.”

In the Consumer Reports article, Hershey’s dark chocolate was found to have lead levels 265% above “normal” per ounce of chocolate as dictated by California’s MADL.

“We used those levels because there are no federal limits for the amount of lead and cadmium most foods can contain,” reads the article.

That is not entirely true – the U.S. Food and Drug Administration uses interim reference levels (IRLs) that recommend children and women of childbearing age consume no more than 2.2mcg and 8.8mcg of lead per day, respectively. 

Regardless, the findings caught the attention of The New York Times, which published a wellness article on the safeness of consuming dark chocolate on Feb. 9. The headlines calling the treat into question have sent a shockwave of panic and confusion across audiences – merely asking if it should be avoided has seemingly deterred people from reading the actual stories.

Steven Papay is a visiting assistant professor in SUNY Oswego’s Department of Health Promotion and Wellness. Papay currently teaches basic nutrition courses and says that students have been approaching him with concerns over the snack because of the recent media spotlight on it.

“And I said, ‘well, did it tell you to stop eating dark chocolate? Did it go through the benefits and the antioxidants available in dark chocolate? Did it tell you how much you actually have to eat?’” Papay said. 

Misinformation is not uncommon in the field of nutrition, so Papay stresses to his students that it is important to exercise media literacy when these kinds of things come up.

Papay said that he has noticed how social media plays a large role in where students get their information from when it comes to nutrition.

“I tell my students again, if you find that I’ve said something in class that maybe is contradictory to something else you’ve read, I said bring it to me because maybe I am not up to snuff on my research 100% and maybe something has changed,” Papay said.

Papay added that he understood the media is not trying to cause people to fear dark chocolate, and agreed that contextualizing the findings so people can understand them is important. He said he has his students think of micrograms and grams as pebbles or grains of sand, to communicate in simple terms the scale of these units. 

“It’s tough to sometimes get that point across in a sense of ‘well a microgram is this size,’ in comparison,” Papay said. “But just to kind of let them know in basic terminology, we don’t need to be afraid of everything that we put in our bodies.”

Margaret Voss is an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at the Falk College of Sport & Human Dynamics at Syracuse University. She acknowledged that while these figures should not be ignored, the levels mentioned by Consumer Reports are still lower than the FDA IRLs. Frequent consumption should still be monitored closely in children and pregnant women, but the science behind ingestion provides some clarity.

“If these metals are consumed with mineral nutrients, such as calcium …  the calcium … will compete with the lead and cadmium for absorption in the gut,” Voss said in an email. Essentially, the lead content in the chocolate before it is consumed will generally be higher than after it gets absorbed into the body. Voss suggested that dark chocolate is best consumed with other food or drink to decrease the possibility of absorbing high levels of lead or cadmium.