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Consumer Reports urges Hershey’s to get heavy metals out of chocolate products

Latest CR tests find concerning levels of lead in Hershey’s cocoa powder and milk chocolate; previous tests found Hershey’s dark chocolate high in lead and cadmium 

YONKERS, NY – Consumer Reports is calling on Hershey’s to step up its efforts to reduce the levels of toxic heavy metals from its chocolate products after its latest tests found the company’s cocoa powder, popular for hot chocolate and holiday baking, had concerning levels of lead. Hershey’s milk chocolate, an iconic Halloween treat, had the highest levels of lead in CR’s tests. Last year, CR found that a number of Hershey’s dark chocolate bars had some of the highest levels of lead or cadmium of all brands it tested.

In March, Hershey’s chief financial officer told Reuters that the company “continue[s] to look for opportunities” to reduce levels of heavy metals in its dark chocolate, but no firm commitments have been announced since that time. In May, CR delivered more than 75,000 petition signatures from consumers urging the company to take action in light of the dark chocolate test results. CR has launched a new petition calling on Hershey’s to reduce heavy metal levels in all of its chocolate products.

“Toxic levels of heavy metals like lead and cadmium shouldn’t be found in our favorite chocolate products,” said Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports. “Our tests have found that other brands have succeeded in producing chocolate products with lower levels of heavy metals that are safer for consumers. As a leading and popular brand, it’s time for Hershey’s to make a firm, time-bound commitment to get dangerous levels of heavy metals out of its chocolate products.”

After CR released its dark chocolate test results last December, the consumer group wanted to see whether other cocoa-containing foods posed a risk.  CR’s scientists tested 48 different products in seven categories—cocoa powder, chocolate chips, milk chocolate bars, and mixes for brownies, chocolate cake, and hot chocolate. CR also added a few dark chocolate bars to its tests. Products came from big name brands like Hershey’s, Nestlé, and Ghirardelli; national retailers like Costco, Trader Joe’s, Target, Walmart and Whole Foods; and specialty makers like Droste and Navitas.

To assess the risk from lead and cadmium, CR looked at whether a serving of each product would expose someone to California’s standard maximum allowable dose levels (MADL) for lead (0.5 micrograms per day) and cadmium (4.1 micrograms per day). CR’s scientists measured heavy metal content against California’s standard levels because there are no federal limits for the amount of lead and cadmium most foods can contain, and they believe that California’s standard levels are the most protective available. However, CR’s tests are not assessments of whether a product exceeds California’s or any other legal standard—they are meant to indicate which products had comparatively higher levels of heavy metals.

In chocolate products, the lead and cadmium are concentrated in the cocoa (or cacao), the ingredient that gives chocolate its distinctive flavor. Dark chocolate tends to have higher levels of cacao. But other chocolate products contain cacao too, in varying quantities—from cocoa powder, which is essentially pure cocoa, to milk chocolate, which can have very little.

As expected, dark chocolates tended to have higher levels of heavy metals and milk chocolate lower. But every product CR tested had detectable amounts of lead and cadmium. Sixteen of the 48 products had amounts above CR’s levels of concern for at least one of the heavy metals—in some cases more than twice CR’s limit—but there were safer options in each category of chocolate products. See the CR story for complete test results.

None of the cocoa powders tested by CR exceeded the limit for cadmium, but two had high levels of lead.  A serving (1 tablespoon) of Hershey’s Cocoa Naturally Unsweetened 100% Cacao tested at 125 percent of the limit, second only to Droste Cacao Powder. None of the five milk chocolate bars in CR’s tests were over CR’s limit for either heavy metal, but Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar had the most lead (67 percent of the limit).

CR’s previous tests of dark chocolate bars found that Lily’s Extremely Dark Chocolate 85% cocoa, which is owned by Hershey’s, was among five bars it tested that had high levels of both lead and cadmium. Hershey’s Special Dark Mildly Sweet Chocolate had the highest level of lead of any of the bars tested by Consumer Reports. The Scharffen Berger Extra Dark Chocolate 82% Cacao bar, owned by Hershey’s, was one of the bars with the highest levels of cadmium in CR’s tests.

Exposure to heavy metals is of greatest concern in children and during pregnancy, because they can damage the brain and nervous system, causing developmental delays, learning and behavior problems, and more. But adults can also experience negative effects. For example, frequent lead exposure has been linked to immune system suppression, reproductive issues, kidney damage, and hypertension

“Consumers need to know that their favorite chocolate products may contain high levels of lead and cadmium, which have been linked to a host of health problems in children and adults,” said Danielle Fugere, president of As You Sow, which has conducted its own tests on heavy metals in chocolate and pushed companies to produce safer products. “As the country’s biggest chocolate maker, it’s imperative for Hershey’s to help set a new industry standard by getting dangerous levels of heavy metals out of their products.”

Michael McCauley, michael.mccauley@consumer.org