Current US Regulations: Cadmium, Other Heavy Metals and Elements in Cacao

Current US Regulations: Cadmium, Other Heavy Metals and Elements in Cacao

Jun 21st 2022

Chemical Elements Heavy Metals Cacao

News has swirled around the cadmium found in chocolate for several years now, especially with the European Union (EU) enforcing regulations against how much cadmium can be found in cocoa and California Prop 65 requiring labeling. With how cadmium is portrayed, it’s not shocking that many people may wonder if their favorite confection is loaded with this heavy metal.

Considering the importance of cocoas around the world, many people have been shocked to find that their food staple could be considered risky. Many have wondered if they need to stop eating anything containing cocoa. We’ve set to work to untangle exactly what cadmium is, what it’s found in, regulations about cadmium, and other metals found in cocoa. Luckily, the swirl of news about cadmium isn’t quite as dire as it has been made out to be. Read on to learn everything you need to know about heavy metals in cocoa.

What is Cadmium?

According to OSHA, cadmium “is a soft, malleable, bluish-white metal found in zinc ores, and to a much lesser extent, in the cadmium mineral greenockite.” Furthermore, “Cadmium and its compounds are highly toxic and exposure to this metal is known to cause cancer and targets the body's cardiovascular, renal, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems.” Of course, OSHA is examining cadmium in its purest form. Yes, it is quite dangerous for those regularly exposed to large amounts of the metal in its pure state.

However, cadmium is found naturally in the soil, with scientists estimating that soil has an average of .36mg per 1 kg of soil. While some soils are infected by wastewater from manufacturing companies, cadmium also becomes naturally concentrated in soil due to runoff and disruption. As one of the “most mobile heavy metals in the environment,” it’s not uncommon for cadmium to rise to the surface through volcanic or seismic activity or pool in specific areas simply because it’s easily transported by the earth.

Where is Cadmium Found In?

A better question is, “What isn’t cadmium found in?” Cadmium is in nearly anything you eat, and cocoa is far from the most frequent source of cadmium. A 2019 study found that people in the US received their highest cadmium amounts from the following food groups:

  • Cereals and Breads – 34%
  • Leafy Vegetables – 20%
  • Potatoes – 11%
  • Legumes and Nuts – 7%
  • Stem/Root Vegetables – 6%

Individual foods were:

  • Lettuce -14%
  • Spaghetti – 8%
  • Bread – 7%
  • Potatoes – 6%

Rice and tortillas were listed as top contributors for certain ethnic groups as well, including Asians and Hispanics.

You’re probably wondering exactly how cadmium makes it in your cacao. As we mentioned earlier, higher concentrations have been linked to unscrupulous manufacturers. However, that’s not the case for cocoa plants. According to the EU, the top factors that influence cadmium in cocoa beans are:

  • Geographic Location
  • Soil Acidity
  • Variety of Cocoa Used

Causes for cadmium in cocoa are usually natural, including volcanic activity, forest fires, and rock weathering. While cadmium’s effects are scary, cocoa is (usually) not going to contain a significant amount that can harm you. Most cocoa bean producers will mix their cocoa bean varieties as well to further reduce already low cadmium levels. Furthermore, once the beans are processed, very little cadmium remains in the finished product, even less than eating kale or other leafy greens.

There is a lot of language in the California legislation that can sound scary and will deter the consumer; however, it’s basically telling consumers that cadmium levels in cocoa need to be regulated fairly. Cocoa bean producers will not argue with this, and most finished product manufacturers were already mixing beans from different areas to ensure lower cadmium levels and in the end, it is still lower than many other consumer products.

What is the Connection Between California Prop 65 and Cadmium?

California has some of the strictest regulations in the United States, and their consumer protections extend to cocoa as well. These fall under California Prop 65; however, cocoa and cadmium are a relatively new addition. Here’s the whole story as to how cocoa products were added.

In 2015 the California non-profit, As You Sow, filed a lawsuit against Trader Joe’s, Mars, Nestle, Hershey’s, and an assortment of other companies that produce cocoa products. Citing Prop 65, the group called for cocoa products to be labeled as potentially dangerous due to their cadmium and lead levels. As You Sow accused these companies of hiding that their product could be dangerous if eaten, going against Prop 65 requirements of labeling. These companies vehemently denied that they had done anything wrong, citing that cadmium naturally occurs where the cocoa plants are grown.

Eventually, a settlement was reached. The chocolate companies were cleared of the egregious charge of attempting to “hide” these dangerous chemicals. In exchange, they agreed to have their cocoa regularly tested and requirements for both cadmium and lead were set as follows:

For cadmium:

Cacao percentage in productCadmium concentration above which a warning is required in parts per million (ppm)“Drop down” cadmium concentration in parts per million (ppm)
Up to 65%0.400 ppm0.320 ppm
More than 65% and up to 95%0.450 ppm0.400 ppm
More than 95%0.960 ppm0.800 ppm

For lead:

Cacao percentage in productLead concentration above which a warning is required in parts per million (ppm)“Drop down” lead concentration in parts per million (ppm)
Up to 65%0.100 ppm0.065 ppm
More than 65% and up to 95%0.150 ppm0.100 ppm
More than 95%0.225 ppm0.200 ppm

Anything below these levels is not labeled with a Prop 65 warning while products above were given a warning.

Furthermore, each manufacturer is required to have a Prop 65 statement on their site to avoid any legal issues. It’s important to note that brands are making significant strides to ensure they are Prop 65 compliant. Many do not want to label their products with the Prop 65 warning, and they ensure their cadmium and lead levels are low enough to avoid needing to put them on individual products.

So, what is Prop 65?

Established in 1986, the California government defines Prop 65 as:

“Proposition 65 requires businesses to provide warnings to Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. These chemicals can be in the products that Californians purchase, in their homes or workplaces, or that are released into the environment. By requiring that this information be provided, Proposition 65 enables Californians to make informed decisions about their exposures to these chemicals.”

Even if you do not live in California, you have likely seen the resulting warnings that are required by manufacturers on numerous websites. With over 900 separate chemicals, Prop 65 is one of the most stringent consumer safety programs in the world. Items as diverse as food, clothes, and cookware have all been required to include a Prop 65 label.

Unfortunately, many people see the Prop 65 label and think, “This item is going to make me ill.” It’s important to (again) note that Prop 65 regulations are extremely strict, and it doesn’t mean that one is going to become sick because they had a bite of a chocolate bar. These regulations are simply stating that a chemical is present that can be dangerous in large quantities.

This doesn’t mean that Prop 65 in fear-mongering. It simply lets consumers make informed decisions on their purchases. It also doesn’t mean that a product is of subpar quality either. The settlement acknowledged that most of the cadmium found in chocolate actually gets there naturally, especially being cocoa loves to grow in areas with a past of volcanic activity.

Because Prop 65 must abide by current research, it is possible that the maximum cadmium levels will eventually change to match those currently held by the EU. Researchers are also looking for ways to reduce cadmium in the soil by introducing lime. This allows cocoa bean producers to make their products more compliant with regulations without needing to spend thousands of dollars on expensive treatments that simply do not work as well.

Are There FDA Regulations on Cadmium?

There are in fact FDA regulations on cadmium which follow:

“Sec. 172.325 Bakers yeast protein

(3) Less than 0.3 ppm arsenic, 0.1 ppm cadmium, 0.4 ppm lead, 0.05 ppm mercury, and 0.3 ppm selenium”

“Sec. 172.399 Zinc methionine sulfate.

Cadmium - not more than 0.05 part per million.”

Both are considered additive ingredients and can be found in an assortment of products. Furthermore, the FDA has started examining cadmium more in-depth over the last few years—especially in how much is added to children’s foods.

Falling under the Toxic Elements Working Group, the FDA focuses on cadmium in “foods, cosmetics and dietary supplements.” It is important to note that cocoa products are in no way singled out. Instead, the FDA examines how cadmium can be found in a variety of products.

However, the main issue the FDA examines is how much cadmium is in children’s foods. With what is written about cocoa products, it would be easy to assume that chocolate is the number one supplier of cadmium in children’s diets. In actuality, the worst offenders are

  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Sunflower Seeds
  • Potato Chips
  • Wheat Cereal

Furthermore, the FDA found that an estimated 70-80% of cadmium intake is due to plant-based food. No one is going to recommend that children stop eating spinach or lettuce. Instead, the FDA is looking to combat high cadmium levels at their source by treating the Earth rather than attempting to demonize produce for containing a natural metal.

To reduce cadmium levels, the FDA recommended farmers take the following actions:

  • Add lime to the soil
  • Increase organic matter
  • Select low-cadmium crop varieties
  • Avoid Phosphate fertilizers
  • Reduce chloride in irrigation water

This isn’t to say that farmers should simply let cocoa and other products grow in areas they know have unhealthy cadmium levels, but that’s not what farmers are looking to do either. Instead, the FDA is looking to work with farmers for ways they can mitigate their plants’ exposure to cadmium.

At the time of writing, there are no regulations on cadmium levels in imported cocoa, but that might change at any time.

The good and the bad: other heavy metals naturally occurring in cacao and chocolate:

With all this talk about cadmium, it can be tempting to think it’s the only metal in cocoa products. However, there is an assortment of other metals in cocoa as well, including nickel, chromium, lead, mercury, and arsenic.

Nickel

Nickel is commonly used to make an assortment of metal goods, including keys, jewelry and currency. A certain amount of nickel in the diet is necessary for good health as it is used in the formation of hemoglobin. However, too much nickel can lead to serious health complications. Nickel gets in cocoa through the pollination process. As the fruits develop, the plant starts releasing nickel. This is an effort to keep pests and parasites away from the tree. The nickel is concentrated in the fruit and fat, which is why it is necessary for manufacturers to prepare items correctly—especially cocoa. In order to mitigate nickel in cocoa, cocoa farmers and manufacturers must take several factors into consideration, including how they have cultivated the plant and soil pH, how the chocolate was prepared, and where it came from.

However, chocolate is far from the top supplier of nickel in the average person’s diet. The 7 highest nickel-containing foods are:

  • Flour and Grains
  • Seeds
  • Seafood
  • Legumes
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Chocolate

It is worth noting that certain varieties of chocolate are more likely to contain higher concentrations of nickel. Dark chocolate is more likely to contain nickel than milk chocolate while milk chocolate is more likely to contain nickel than white chocolate. However, nickel concentrations in all chocolate is relatively low when it comes from a trusted supplier.

Chromium

Not every metal in cocoa is bad, and chromium is an excellent example of a good metal that cocoa contains. Chromium is an essential trace mineral. Our body uses it to help insulin sensitivity and the metabolism. Health benefits include:

  • Insulin Sensitivity for Those with PCOS and Diabetes
  • Weight Loss
  • Depression Relief

Like other metals on this list, chromium is naturally occurring in cocoa products. Chromium in cocoa comes from not only the soil but also from the preparation method used as well as how it is stored. Like other metals, there is too much of a good thing, and high levels of chromium can also be harmful, which would be far more than consumed through cocoa or chocolate.

Our bodies need chromium to survive, and the average adult should have between 25 and 35 ug of chromium per day. Chocolate averages to around .4ug per ml, making it a prime source for those who need to add more chromium to their diets.

As with everything, chromium should be taken in moderation. However, adding chromium-rich foods to your diet, including cocoa products, can keep you happy and healthy for years to come. Unlike supplements, it is nearly impossible to consume too much chromium from foods to the point where you would suffer adverse effects.

Lead

Lead is a scary possibility for anyone. Whenever a large lead contamination happens, it’s on the news for months and can take decades to right. Lead poisoning can cause damage to ones health, especially to children.

However, unless a severe contamination somewhere in the chain, it is impossible to get lead poisoning from ingesting cocoa. Lead is a naturally occurring metal that is in an assortment of items. The highest amount of lead in cocoa is believed to come from places that still use leaded gasoline to power their drying machinery, which is not the case of Ecuador, or most countries in Latin America. Efforts are being made to cut down on this process to ensure safer food, and more and more cocoa-producers are finding they can receive deals to make their process easier.

This isn’t to say that we should happily munch away on chocolate we know contains large amounts of lead. But when you know your source and know that this origin doesn’t use lead gas, the chances f large lead quantities is rare. You are likely naturally eating larger amounts of lead than you would find in chocolate. Some food items with the highest lead numbers include:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Vegetable
  • Cereal
  • Beverages
  • Fruit
  • Nuts

Cocoa products don’t even make the list! If you want to take steps to avoid exposing yourself to more lead, don’t be afraid to reach out to manufacturers to find out about their suppliers. More and more ethically-focused companies are looking to source their chocolate from producers who do not use anything leaded in their production process as well, such as in CocoaSupply.

Mercury

Mercury is used in thermometers, barometers, streetlights, and advertising signs—and it’s also in a lot of your food. Again, it can be really tempting to be afraid of this metal. After all, it is quite toxic.

However, the amount of mercury in cocoa products is incredibly small. In fact, you are more likely to be exposed to mercury in your chocolate because of the high fructose corn syrup used to make it rather than because the cocoa plant contains large amounts of the metal. Most mercury in the diet comes from fish, with the eight foods with the highest mercury levels being:

  • Swordfish
  • Shark
  • Tilefish
  • King Mackerel
  • Bigeye Tuna
  • Marlin
  • Orange Roughy
  • Chilean Sea Bass

Arsenic

Arsenic brings up images of horrible poisonings, but it’s actually a very common element that is found in the air, water and soil. As you have seen throughout this list, it’s extremely common to find that most of the items in cocoa products are naturally occurring. It is impossible to avoid all of them, and arsenic is just like the rest. The highest concentration of arsenic is found in the beans. As cocoa goes through the production process, most of the naturally occurring arsenic is removed from the product. Inorganic arsenic, or arsenic that is not naturally occurring, would only be possible through a contamination event. At the time of writing, no such event has occurred.

Foods that are significantly higher in arsenic include:

  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Dark-Meat Fish
  • Rice
  • Chicken
  • Beer
  • Wine

Cobalt

Again, just like arsenic, lead, mercury, nickel, and cadmium, a trace amount of cobalt is likely to be in cocoa products.

Because cobalt is naturally found in the soil, it is absorbed by cacao plants. However, most cobalt is removed during the production process with significantly smaller amounts being in the finished cocoa products.

However, cobalt isn’t all bad either. Health benefits include:

  • Improving the body’s ability to metabolize and utilize Vitamin B12
  • Improve the body’s ability to absorb iron
  • Maintain heart health
  • Aid those with Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

Foods that contain higher levels of cobalt include:

  • Fish
  • Nuts
  • Green, Leafy Vegetables
  • Cereal

The miniscule amount of cobalt in your cocoa products is actually more likely to help your body than adversely affect it!

Potassium

Potassium isn’t just coming from bananas. It’s also in cocoa! Cocoa is estimated to have as much as 500mg of potassium per serving, making it a high-potassium food. Potassium helps people’s health by improving:

  • Heartrate
  • Muscle and Nerve Function
  • Protein Synthesis
  • Carbohydrate Metabolization

The process a cocoa bean is put through will determine how much potassium is left in the finished product. Broma processed cocoa removed the fat from the powder, leading to what most people in the US consider to be cocoa powder. Dutch processed cocoa is completed after the process, relying on the addition of potassium carbonate to the cocoa. Because of this, Dutch cocoa is much higher in potassium, and many people believe it also tastes better as well.

Other foods that are high in potassium include:

  • Cooked Spinach
  • Cooked Broccoli
  • Bananas
  • Citrus
  • Mushrooms
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Tuna
  • Lentils
  • Molasses
  • Nuts

While you’re not likely to get your recommended day allowance of potassium strictly from chocolate, you can expect to receive a healthy dose as an added bonus to your sweet treat.

Recap

While some heavy metals are even beneficial to our bodies, for the ones with adverse health effects, the European Union and California’s Prop 65 legislation have both put restrictions on acceptable cadmium levels that can be found in chocolate. Both of these levels are considered well below what is considered an acceptable amount of cadmium in the human diet.

Cocoa producers can reduce the amount of cadmium in their products by mixing it with other beans and treating the soil, among other methods. Because of how cacao trees are cultivated and where they grow, it is impossible to remove all bad heavy metals in cacao.

There are no current regulations in regards to cocoa cadmium by the FDA. While this legislation may change in the future, at this time, there does not appear to be any effort by the FDA to put sanctions on chocolate. California Prop 65 places cacao farmers in a tougher predicament than European efforts because of the extremely low levels of cadmium the state allows on their store shelves without a warning label.

In the future, Prop 65 may be changed to reflect the EU standards. While there are no limits to what can be placed on a store’s shelves, it may be difficult for smaller confectioners to sell their items if they are required to place a Prop 65 warning on their products. Being Prop 65 must be reviewed each year, there is a possibility these amounts will be reduced in the future.

Finally, cadmium is far from the only cacao heavy metal. There are trace amounts of lead, nickel, chromium, arsenic, cobalt, mercury, and potassium in cocoa as well. However, these metals are commonly found in an assortment of other food products as well and are at such low levels in cocoa that they are not really considered a problem. However, cocoa producers continuously work hard to mitigate what they can to ensure the healthiest cocoa is used for products. In the future, we may see further efforts to reduce these metals from the cultivation process.

Sourcing cocoa can feel like an impossible task, especially if you must meet both Prop 65 standards as well as those of the EU. CocoaSupply is dedicated to helping those who use cocoa in their products to meet both standards. Our family-owned and operated business imports and distributes quality cocoa products all across the world while ensuring cacao farms are safe, ethical, and sustainable. Taste or feel the difference that comes with Cocoa Supply products and ensure you are providing your customers with the highest quality products on the market, and helping them understand the different regulations and applications to chocolate or any other product made with cacao.. For more information on Cocoa Supply and our products, please contact us at [email protected],  call us at (201) 244-9210,  or WhatsApp +1 646-881-4872 . We are happy to discuss our products and suppliers as well as answer any of your questions.

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