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Research Reveals Ways Lead and Cadmium in Chocolate May be Reduced

— September 2, 2022

Chocolate industry and As You Sow release three-year, collaborative study.

BERKELEY, CA—A new report released today by As You Sow and the National Confectioners Association is the result of a three-year effort by a multi-disciplinary panel of four experts regarding the sources of lead and cadmium in cocoa and chocolate and how levels may be reduced in the future. The expert investigation was funded through a California Proposition 65 settlement reached between As You Sow and 32 members of the confectionary industry in 2018.

As You Sow’s mission is to promote environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies. As You Sow’s environmental health program promotes corporate accountability to ensure safe and sustainable food, agriculture, and consumer products.

Food safety and product quality are the chocolate industry’s highest priorities and National Confectioners Association member companies remain dedicated to upholding high standards and striving for continuous improvement in this regard.

The expert investigation report concludes that cadmium can be found in cocoa and chocolate due to its presence in soils, either through natural or man-made sources, where cocoa is cultivated and harvested in the tropics. Cocoa plants take up cadmium from soils via their roots and deposit it in the nibs (center) of cocoa beans. Reducing cadmium levels without compromising taste characteristics will require blending low and high cadmium beans in the short-term, and changes to soil composition or cocoa genetics over time, especially in the Latin America and Caribbean regions where fine flavored cocoa is grown and cadmium levels in soils tend to be higher.

In contrast, lead is not taken up through the roots of cocoa plants. Instead, lead from many sources including soil, dust, and deposition from power plants around the world, adheres to the outer shells of cocoa beans after they are extracted from the pods. The beans are naturally coated with a sticky cacao pulp known as “baba” or “mucilage” which allows lead to cling to the beans while they are being fermented and dried in the open in the tropical countries where they are grown. The experts found that, where feasible, minimizing soil contact and the potential for aerial deposition at these stages of the harvesting process, and optimizing contaminant removal during subsequent bean cleaning, roasting, and shell removal (as many chocolate manufacturers already do), should help reduce lead levels in finished products.

Based on their findings(see pages 17-18 of the report), the experts have identified and prioritized a list of recommended cadmium and lead reduction measures for the industry to consider implementing. Significant lead reductions can be expected within the first year of implementing new handling practices. Cadmium reductions beyond those achieved through blending and potential changes in farming practices, including soil treatment and planting new tree stock, will take longer. Industry members plan to continue to work with As You Sow, cocoa farmers, scientists, and their own quality teams to further reduce cadmium and lead levels in chocolate products as feasible.

Eating Chocolate in the Morning is a Healthy Choice, Study Suggests
Photo by Samer Daboul from Pexels

“The research completed by this expert committee is important in revealing feasible methods of reducing both lead and cadmium in finished chocolate products,” said Danielle Fugere, president and chief counsel at As You Sow. “We appreciate the collaborative approach of the chocolate industry in funding this three-year study. It shows how California’s Toxic Enforcement Act can lead to positive change. We look forward to working with industry to set lower cadmium and lead levels as we move into the implementation phase of this work.”

Christopher Gindlesperger, senior vice president of public affairs and communications at the National Confectioners Association, commented: “NCA and its members in the chocolate industry welcome the report resulting from the expert committee investigation they funded through a prior California Proposition 65 settlement with As You Sow. We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively to implement feasible measures that assure product quality and safety so that consumers can continue to enjoy chocolate as a delicious treat.”

As You Sow is the nation’s leading shareholder advocacy nonprofit, with a 30-year track record promoting environmental and social corporate responsibility and advancing values-aligning investing. Its issue areas include climate change, ocean plastics, pesticides, racial justice, workplace diversity, and executive compensation. Click here for As You Sow’s shareholder resolution tracker.

National Confectioners Association is the leading trade organization for the U.S. confectionery industry, which generates more than $37 billion in retail sales each year. Making chocolate, candy, gum and mints, the industry employs nearly 58,000 workers in more than 1,600 manufacturing facilities across all 50 states. NCA advocates for an environment that enables candy makers to thrive and work to ensure that chocolate and candy are celebrated for their contributions to culture, society, the economy and everyday moments of joy.

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