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October 27, 2023

Hershey's cocoa powder among chocolate products with 'concerning' amounts of lead, Consumer Reports says

The advocacy group is calling on the Pennsylvania-based company to commit to reducing levels of heavy metals in its sweets

Many chocolate products contain "concerning" levels of potentially dangerous heavy metals, according to new research by Consumer Reports.

Consumer Reports tested 48 popular chocolate products for heavy metals, including lead and cadmium. One-third of them contained amounts that exceeded California's maximum threshold for daily consumption in food, the most stringent in the U.S. (There are no federal standards).

The list included Hershey's cocoa powder, Perugina dark chocolate bars, Starbucks hot cocoa mix and Ghirardelli premium double chocolate brownie mix.

But Consumer Reports specifically singled out Hershey's, the largest chocolate manufacturer in the United States, by creating a petition that calls for the Pennsylvania-based company to "commit to a time-bound plan for reducing heavy metals" in all of its products. 

"Hershey has publicly indicated interest in reducing lead and cadmium in its products, and it is time for you to commit to a plan to do so," the petition reads.

Hershey's spokesperson Todd M. Scott told PennLive that the chocolate maker does not add heavy metals to its products, emphasizing that they naturally exist within the environment that cocoa is grown. 

"Our highest priority is the safety and quality of our products," Scott said. "Hershey products comply with all applicable laws and regulations and are manufactured under strict quality and safety requirements."

Exposure to heavy metals in large amounts can lower energy levels and damage the functioning of the brain, lungs, kidney, liver and other important organs, according to the National Library of Medicine. 

Heavy metals are of greatest concern in children and during pregnancy, because they can damage the brain and nervous system. In children, lead exposure can cause comas, convulsions, permanent intellectual disabilities and death. In adults, frequent lead exposure can cause immune system suppression, reproductive issues, kidney damage and hypertension.

Despite the levels of heavy metals detected in some chocolate products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it's not necessarily cause for panic.

"While the presence of cadmium and lead in chocolate has been the subject of considerable media attention, experts from around the world have found that chocolate is a minor source of exposure to these contaminants internationally," an FDA spokesperson told Consumer Reports.

Heavy metals are concentrated in the cocoa, the ingredient that gives chocolate its characteristic flavor. Research shows lead can be deposited on cocoa beans after they are harvested — when dust or soil falls onto the beans as they dry outside — while cadmium is taken up into the cocoa plant from the soil. Consumer Reports did not find traces of other heavy metals like arsenic or mercury in the tested products.

But Consumer Reports said their study's findings suggests there are steps that chocolate makers can make to reduce the amounts of heavy metals in their products. 

"In general, products with higher cocoa content tend to have higher levels of metals, but not always," said Eric Boring, a chemist who oversaw Consumer Reports' chocolate tests. "There's enough variation in the lead levels within each category of foods that it's clear factors other than cocoa content affect lead levels, and that means manufacturers have the ability to reduce the heavy metals in their products to the lowest levels possible."

Consumer Reports tested products in seven categories — cocoa powder, chocolate chips, milk chocolate bars, dark chocolate bars and mixes for brownies, chocolate cake and hot chocolate. The products came from major brands including Hershey's, Ghirardelli and Nestlé. Every product tested contained detectable amounts of lead and cadmium.

Five of the seven dark chocolate bars tested surpassed California's daily limits for at least one of the heavy metals. By contrast, none of the milk chocolate bars did. Milk chocolate has lower amounts of cocoa. 

Three Hershey's products were tested. One tablespoon of Hershey's Cocoa Naturally Unsweetened 100% Cacao exceeded California's lead limits by 25%. But its Special Dark Chocolate Chips and Milk Chocolate Bar were within lead limits. None of the products exceeded limits for cadmium.

The study followed Consumer Reports' 2022 research on dark chocolate products. Of the 28 dark chocolate bars tested in that study, 23 exceeded California's limits for at least one of the heavy metals. Hershey's Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate bar was found to have an excessive amount of lead. Dark chocolate bars sold under Hershey's brands Lily's and Scharffen Berger also were found to have high levels of heavy metals.

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