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Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what heavy metals you’re gonna get

Jennifer Posey, owner of Hedonist Artisan Chocolates, stands in front of her chocolates, holding a Valentine's Day-themed box of chocolates.
Jasmin Singer
Jennifer Posey, the owner of Hedonist Artisan Chocolates, says it's the espresso-bean chocolate that is one of her favorites, whether or not it's Valentine's Day.

This Valentine’s Day, there may be more at stake than a romantic overture in that heart-shaped box of chocolate.

This past December, Consumer Reports shocked dark chocolate lovers with its report stating that lurking within their favorite treat may be cadmium and lead, heavy metals that are toxic to humans at specific concentrations.

Hold onto your candy wrapper, but according to the report, of the 28 dark chocolate bars measured, cadmium and lead were found in all of them.

The amounts of heavy metals varied greatly, with bars like Dove Promises Deeper Dark Chocolate showing up with high amounts of cadmium, Hershey’s Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate having high amounts of lead, and Trader Joe’s The Dark Chocolate Lover’s Chocolate showing high amounts of both.

On the safer list, bars reporting low levels of heavy metals included Taza Chocolate’s Organic Deliciously Dark Chocolate and Mast Organic Dark Chocolate.

Findings like these can be frightening for consumers, especially considering that consistent and high exposure to heavy metals can cause immune system suppression, kidney damage, and developmental problems in young children.

But some are dubious of these claims, citing that people have been eating chocolate without any complications for eons. Is it possible that some are overreacting to the headlines?

Jennifer Posey, the owner of South Wedge’s artisan chocolate shop, Hedonist, thinks so. When the report first came out, she had her own moment of concern.

But Posey says she's confident that the French factory where her primary chocolate is sourced has been carrying out good stewardship practices for many decades. That, along with her additional research into the issue, was enough for her to no longer worry.

“I think we should always take everything into consideration and make sure that whoever it is that you're working with [ … ] is on it, and they're paying attention to everything,” she says.

But for Posey, whose 15-year-old business has become a mainstay for South Wedge residents, the report resulted in mainstream overreactions.

“You should always be on your game,” she says, “but it's not gonna go away, and it's always been here.”

She’s referring to cadmium and lead, and she’s right that it’s nothing new. Cadmium in cocoa beans is derived from the soil, traveling to the beans by way of the cocoa tree. Lead contamination happens when harvested wet beans become exposed to dust and soil during drying and transport.

But Johns Hopkins Medicine toxicologist Andrew Stolbach told NPR that maximum allowable dose levels are purposefully set to be “very conservative,” and that enjoying chocolate “in moderate amounts” is nothing to worry about.

Though the hullabaloo instigated by the report was focused on chocolate, cadmium and lead are found in many other products, according to Dr. B. Paige Lawrence, the chair of the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“There's small amounts of cadmium and arsenic and other metals that we get exposed to a lot of times through the foods that we eat,” Lawrence says.

In part, she says, those metals are naturally in the water and ground that the foods grow in and are part of the farming practices used in the area.

“That may change how the rice has grown and can influence the amount of arsenic in the rice,” she offers as one example of heavy metals found in food. “But when we're talking about arsenic and rice, we're talking about a teeny tiny amount. It's sort of an analogy to cadmium and chocolate.”

Other foods that run the risk of containing heavy metals include fish, leafy green vegetables, and unfiltered water.

According to Lawrence, one of the reasons the alarm bells have been ringing relates to the fact that our technology is rapidly improving. Heavy metals simply exist in soil and dirt, she says. “So they can just get into the food sometimes in very minute amounts, but our ability to detect those minute amounts has gotten a lot better.”

Even so, there are ways to ensure that we are ingesting the smallest amounts possible, both on personal and policy levels. Last August, a report was released by the National Confectioners Association along with As You Sow, a nonprofit promoting environmental and social corporate responsibility, revealing ways cadmium and lead can be reduced in chocolate. The three-year investigation was funded through a California Proposition 65 settlement reached between As You Sow and 32 members of the confectionery industry.

The settlement created criteria for appropriate concentration levels; if levels of lead or cadmium surpass the agreed-upon standards, warning labels will be required. The National Confectioners Association states that they have indeed adhered to the requirements.

One industry shift that can ensure lead levels remain low is to reduce the contact between wet cocoa beans and soil during drying and fermentation. As for cadmium, blending cocoa beans that have both lower and higher amounts could result in overall lower levels of the toxin.

As for Lawrence, she’s confident that moderate chocolate consumption is nothing to worry about. “I'm not a big chocolate eater,” she says, “but were I presented with chocolate on Valentine's Day, I would happily eat it.”

Jasmin Singer is the host of WXXI’s Weekend Edition and Environmental Connections, as well as a guest host for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Connections.