February 1, 2023: If you like to frequently gift dark chocolate to your adorable little child or to the love of your life, then chances are high that you’re basically giving them gift-wrapped toxins to consume. It may sound jarring to you, but it’s not an exaggeration if you’re into it on a regular basis. A recent study found that branded dark chocolates that we find so delicious may not be a good thing for our health if consumed too often. In fact, they could be laced with high doses of lead and cadmium.
Scientists at a US-based consumer research organisation have detected the presence of these two toxic heavy metals in many of the dark chocolate bars manufactured by popular brands at levels far above the maximum allowable limit. Both lead and cadmium can be extremely poisonous for humans, even if they are consumed in low doses.
The presence of these elements in dark chocolates in high quantities could trigger a host of health issues, particularly for children and pregnant women, if consumed frequently. In fact, a more worrisome revelation is that these two heavy metals are also found in many other edibles such as sweet potatoes, spinach, and carrots. Therefore, tiny proportions of these two toxic elements entering the human body from multiple sources can aggregate to dangerous levels, underlining the immediate need to cut down their intake and prevent consistent, long-term exposure.
The eye-opening study was conducted by Consumer Reports (CR), an independent, nonprofit organisation operating from Yonkers in New York state, which works side by side with consumers for truth, transparency, and fairness in the marketplace. It measured the amount of heavy metals in 28 dark chocolate bars and detected the alarming presence of cadmium and lead in all of them.
In 23 of the bars that were scrutinised, it emerged that consuming one ounce a day would bring an adult in the harmful zone for at least one of the two metals. And in five of these 23 bars, the levels of both cadmium and lead were above the permissible limits.
According to CR food safety researcher Tunde Akinleye, who spearheaded the investigation, frequent exposure to the two metals can hamper brain development and lead to lower IQ among children. Adults frequently exposed to lead, whose even the smallest quantities are toxic, may experience nervous system disorders, high blood pressure, kidney damage, and reproductive issues.
However, there is a sunny side to the story. Five of the 28 bars that were examined were found to carry lower levels of lead and cadmium, indicating that chocolate companies can easily churn out relatively safer dark chocolates while continuing to do good business.
EVOLUTION OF CHOCOLATES
So, the question is, why do dark chocolates contain these heavy metals in the first place, and how can a manufacturer reduce the levels of harmful elements such as lead and cadmium in their products? To understand this, let’s first try to understand what dark chocolate is, or for that matter, what chocolate is.
Well, chocolates have been around for over 3,000 years. They are made from cacao, which comes from the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree, native to Central and South America. The Greek word Theobroma literally translates to “food of the gods.”
Initially, chocolate was developed as a drink. The Spanish then sweetened it by adding cane sugar, honey, and other flavourings, serving the first ever hot chocolate. The Natural History Museum in Britain credits Irish physician-botanist Hans Sloane (1660-1753), then residing in Jamaica, with adding milk to the dark chocolate beverage to make it “palatable”. He carried the milk-and-cocoa mixture with him, and for many years henceforth, it was sold as medicine.
However, the Smithsonian magazine claims that Jamaicans, and not Europeans, added milk to chocolate first, which happened as far back as in 1494. Finally, in the 18th century, chocolate was turned into a solid form and started to be mass-produced in the 19th century.
So, in the early years, and till people woke up to the magical taste derived from mixing milk with chocolate, dark chocolate was the only form of chocolate available.
Now cacao, from which chocolates are made, has two principal components – cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Dark chocolates contain a higher percentage of cacao – at least 65% by weight – compared to milk chocolates, according to toxicologist Michael DiBartolomeis, a former official at the California Department of Public Health. But the disturbing thing is that heavy metals, especially cadmium, are found in cocoa solids. And it is perhaps because of the higher cacao content that dark chocolate contains more heavy metals than milk chocolate.
DiBartolomeis believes that removing the two metals from dark chocolate poses a tough challenge since lead and cadmium get into cacao in different ways. It means scientists will have to figure out two different ways in order to remove both the toxic metals.
BY ‘AS YOU SOW’
Back in 2014, As You Sow (AYS), an organisation that pushes for corporate accountability, embarked on a mission to detect toxic levels of lead and cadmium in the chocolates we eat. AYS conducted an eight-year-long marathon research in collaboration with the chocolate industry. Finally, it came up with a 381-page report in August last year, concluding that it “found some simple, safe, low-cost solutions to remove much of the toxic lead found in chocolate”.
The report, titled: ‘Expert Investigation Related to Cocoa and Chocolate Products’, identified how lead and cadmium find their way into chocolate. It goes into “15 high-confidence strategies to reduce cadmium (Cd) and/or lead (Pb) in chocolate products”.
The three-phase report identified sources of metals in chocolate, highlighted feasible reduction strategies, and gave its analysis and comments on reducing the level of metals.
The AYS investigation pointed out that cadmium is taken up by the roots of the cacao trees and deposited in parts of the fruits. “Mitigating this contamination includes changing the Ph of the soil, switching out tree stocks, reducing metals contamination from fertilisers, and other inputs including water,” the report said.
It found that lead contamination occurs at various stages of cacao production, including the handling stage when cacao beans are removed from the pods.
AYS advises exporters to stop purchasing beans from regions with high cadmium, and calls upon farmers to desist from planting new orchards in regions with high cadmium and use soil amendments to increase soil pH. Producers are told to prevent lead contamination of beans during fermenting and drying, and also establish bean cleaning and winnowing practices.
Following awareness campaigns from pressure groups, researchers have been brainstorming strategies to ensure a risk-free dark chocolate experience for consumers. It remains to be seen if the global confectionery industry, bloated with profits from the enormous sale of branded chocolates, will bother to take action and remove toxins from the edibles.
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