Sorry, But Your Go-To Dark Chocolate Probably Contains Lead

Trader Joe's, Hershey's, and many other brands are facing class-action lawsuits over the levels of harmful chemicals in their dark chocolate products.

Rustic homemade dark chocolate
Photo: Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

First, they ruined Subway tuna, then it was Skittles. In the latest unsettling lawsuit news, a series of startling new class-action lawsuits has us rethinking some of our so-called "healthy" snacking habits.

This week a lawsuit was filed in New York State against Trader Joe's, alleging that the brand misled customers by failing to disclose that several of their dark chocolate products contain lead and cadmium. This follows a lawsuit filed just last week alleging similar claims against Hershey's brand.

So where did the claims behind both of these lawsuits originate? And what should you do about that dark chocolate in your cabinet? Here's what you should know.

Which Dark Chocolate Bars Contain Lead & Cadmium?

Both lawsuits are based on a Consumer Report published in December that detailed testing of various popular dark chocolate bars for levels of heavy metals. The study included 28 bars, and of those 28, every single one contained lead and cadmium, and 23 contained enough of these heavy metals in just one ounce to put an adult over a level that public health authorities warn may be harmful.

How Consumer Reports Tested Dark Chocolate

The CR tests used California's standards as a benchmark, stating, "There are no federal limits for the amount of lead and cadmium most foods can contain, and CR's scientists believe that California's levels are the most protective available."

Using those dosage levels, they measured the potential risk, calculating percentages of the maximum allowable dose level (MADL) found in one ounce of each chocolate product. For example, the bar with the highest levels of lead was Hershey's Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate, with 265% of an adult's MADL in just one single one-ounce piece. In the same portion, Trader Joe's The Dark Chocolate Lover's Chocolate contained 127% of the MADL for lead and 229% for cadmium.

Other Brands With High Levels of Heavy Metals

The following brands were among the 23 over the MADL for either lead, cadmium, or both: Trader Joe's, Hershey, Lindt, Godiva, and Dove, alongside smaller brands like Theo, Chocolove, Green & Black's, Alter Eco, and Lily's, to name a few. Even my personal favorite — Tony's Chocolonely — was among the offenders.

The Risks of Lead & Cadmium Exposure

The FDA notes that frequent exposure can lead to nervous system problems including cognitive effects, as well as hypertension, immune system suppression, kidney damage, and reproductive issues. According to the CDC, large amounts of cadmium ingestion can cause severe stomach irritation, vomiting, and diarrhea.

What You Need to Know About the New Lawsuits

The two lawsuits filed (so far) both cited the Consumer Reports article among other public reports and articles. However, despite claiming the brands' chocolates do contain potentially, "unsafe levels of lead and cadmium", they're not suing on the basis that these products are harmful.

They're instead suing for "deceptive" marketing, claiming that these levels should have been disclosed on packaging to consumers. The plaintiffs in both lawsuits argue that they would not have purchased and/or been willing to pay the same amount for the products had they known the potential risks they may pose to one's health.

It's worth noting that since these are class-action lawsuits, you may be eligible for damages (aka; a check down the line), should they settle or go to trial and the plaintiffs win. So if you're an avid consumer of any of the Trader Joe's or Hershey's products listed in the suit, it may be worth your while to stay informed on the lawsuit and stay tuned for updates.

Takeaways

There are a few key takeaways from this report and subsequent lawsuits. Before you go into an all-out panic and dump your dark chocolate stash, it's important to establish context. According to the report, it's quite common for everyday foods to contain both lead and cadmium. Shellfish, mushrooms, and potatoes are high in cadmium; Fruit juices, sweet potatoes, spinach, and spices are all high in lead.

First of all, it's best to take a holistic approach if your concern is exposure to these metals. Look at your entire diet and overall chocolate consumption; These products are intended to be just one part of your diet, and a treat, at that.

Second, consume dark chocolate — like many other foods — in moderation. According to the report, "A single ounce of even one of the chocolates with the highest cadmium and lead levels in CR's tests is unlikely to cause any immediate harm." However, the risks of side effects from these heavy metals are highest for pregnant people and children, so pay closer attention to metal levels if you're a part of or feeding one of those groups.

Consumer Reports also shared several best practices when it comes to picking which chocolate to buy:

  • Choose dark chocolates from the report with lower levels of heavy metals
  • If buying a brand not tested in the report, try picking dark chocolates with lower cacao percentages
  • Don't assume organic means safer
  • If you eat chocolate daily, mix it up with milk chocolate from time to time

So in other words, keep enjoying your dark chocolate as part of a well-rounded diet!

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