Updated/ reorganized November 2023.
Introduction and Importance:
ALL chocolate, cacao and cocoa contains heavy metals, and contains the highest levels of lead compared to other foods.
The good news is that there are better options available! I haven’t seen any other bloggers address this topic with this much breadth and compare so many brands and past research, so keep reading for all the info.
Consumer Reports has done articles on chocolate but they did not give absolute levels of heavy metals. So what is listed as best choices by them may just be lower than other brands, but not truly low. Their results indicate which products had comparatively higher levels and are not assessments of whether a product exceeds a legal standard.
A past Facebook post and YouTube video from Doctor Christian Gonzalez N.D (“Dr. G”) compared heavy metal content based on COA from various Cacao brands. His mention of how Prop 65 works isn’t quite right (they don’t “get slapped” with a prop 65 warning; but they can get fined if they don’t have the warning and need it, so companies choose whether to put on warnings), but his point that companies can’t be trusted unless we see COA is true. And his conversions into how many teaspoons or tablespoons fall under recommended daily limits is very helpful. I’m not sure if he calculated that based on a generic conversion of 15 g per tablespoon, or equivalents listed on products (for example, according to a Nativas cacao nibs label, 10 g equals one tablespoon).
It’s important to remember that there is actually no safe level of heavy metals like lead and cadmium in the body. Ideally we would be consuming none of them.
The FDA does NOT consistently monitor food for lead and cadmium contamination. Most chocolate/cacao/cocoa brands exceed the recommended limits for lead and/or cadmium of California’s Maximum Allowable Dose Levels (MADLs), which is one of the only standards available. See section below for more information about laws regarding heavy metals.
But what we eat is of utmost importance when we consider how toxicants get into our bodies. Trust me, I know the struggle is real, because food is so good and we are bombarded by bad choices, many of which are ingrained into society and culture.
Heavy metals make their way into many foods, BUT I don’t vilify all of them. I’ve mentioned that the consumption of food in general helps inhibit absorption of some lead. But that means that some IS absorbed, and that could still be a lot if there is a high concentration/ amount of metals, such as with chocolate.
I’m singling out chocolate because:
1. Likelihood of contamination. ALL chocolate has some heavy metals because the areas where it is grown often use leaded gasoline that contaminates the soil. Chocolate also requires processing, which can add additional heavy metals from the machinery. I explain it in my post about Things that contain lead. Lead Safe Mama also has several posts. Hawaiian grown cacao may be a better option to look into.
2. Chocolate often has a HIGH concentration of lead and/or cadmium. With other types of foods, *sometimes* they have heavy metals, but and if they do it’s usually not as high of a level as chocolate.
3. Unfortunately, while there has been some research suggesting health benefits of chocolate, it isn’t necessary for survival. Foods like vegetables are more essential, so it’s just not wise to cut those from your diet.
Best Brands for Cacao, Cocoa and Chocolate:
It’s important to remember that concentrations of metals can vary from batch to batch, so testing results can reflect snapshots in time, not a guarantee that all products from that brand are always good or bad. I have NO affiliation to any brands mentioned .
Navitas has the lowest levels I have seen for powders and nibs. HOWEVER, the information was written as averages listed in an email from the company and COA documents were not provided. Note that Dr. G was unable to get a response from them. To me, they wrote “unfortunately our policy is to not share out COAs. We moved to sharing out averages only when we stopped supplying product in bulk, as the small snapshot a COA provides adds little value to repeat purchase decisions over time. (There were other reasons too, of course; more about those here). I realize this leaves us with “trust us!” And you may decide to do so or not.” They have a point about averages being more valuable than one snapshot in time, but ideally they would share data from each batch as well as give averages.
Navitas currently sells products sourced from two different places; check the back of the bag just below the nutrition panel to see which country. Sierra Leone has lower levels. Amazon associates link to cacao nibs: https://amzn.to/3AsGjHQ (you won’t be able to know which country of origin).
Navitas Sierra Leone Nibs: Averages are 0.34mcg/g (340 ppb) of cadmium and 0.009mcg/g (9 ppb) of lead. *This is the best choice from this brand and any brand I’ve seen, so that’s what I bought, and ground them to a powder using my blender (which I’ve had tested for lead). But see note about the Peruvian nibs.
Navitas Sierra Leone Cacao Powder: Cadmium averages 0.4mcg/g (400 ppb) and lead at 0.045mcg/g (45 ppb). *This is the lowest level for powder I have seen. I also use this.
Navitas Peruvian nibs: Average 0.44mcg/g (440 ppb) of cadmium and 0.01mcg/g (10 ppb) of lead. I ordered the nibs and got the ones from Peru. They have a prop 65 warning for cadmium on the bag and verified it needs to be there (it’s not there “just in case”).
Navitas Peruvian cacao powder: Average 1.15mcg/g (1150 ppb) of cadmium and 0.059mcg/g (59 ppb) of lead. That’s a lower level of lead but high cadmium, so I wouldn’t use this variety.
For what Navitas lists as one serving size (30 g or approx three tablespoons), that means you multiply the amount of lead they stated by 30. For the Sierra Leone nibs, three tablespoons would be about half of prop 65 limit levels (or, 6 tablespoons would reach the full prop 65 limit.)
You can also see that Navitas’ processing (to powder form) increases the lead content by 5-6 times. This may not be due to an addition of lead or from machinery; it may be because the cocoa butter was removed, leading to a higher concentration of already existing lead in the product. For the Sierra Leone powder, they list their serving size as 15 g or 2.5 tablespoons. So 4 tablespoons would be half prop 65 level; 8 tablespoons would be the full limit of prop 66. It will seem like you can have more powder because it is less dense than nibs; however, still realize that if you’re cooking with it or something, you might need less of it to truly equal the same amount nibs.
Alter Eco: Their lower testing limit is 20ppb, meaning their products may have up to that level of lead. That is a low level. They sell ready to eat chocolate bars and snacks (that in my opinion are delicious) made with chocolate; they don’t sell products such as cocoa powder for baking. According to testing, the 90% Super Blackout Bars range from 0.34 to 0.37 ppm for cadmium for the entire bar. For dark chocolate that is 65-95% cocoa (our Super Blackout is 90% cocoa), the new limit for cadmium is 0.45 ppm for the entire bar and they stay under that limit. However, see that they showed up as having “comparatively” high cadmium according to Consumer Reports.
Wildly Organic Fermented Cacao Nibs provides some data from testing (though doesn’t show the full documents) under each product description on their website and some are low. They do have a prop 65 warning mentioning lead and cadmium.
Another great brand is Mountain Rose Organics (up to 1 tablespoon per day according to Dr. G). I requested COA myself and received this data: Roasted cacao nibs (I don’t think they have raw): 28 ppb lead, 586 ppb cadmium. Raw cacao: 79 ppb lead, 758 ppb cadmium. Roasted cacao: 48 ppb lead, 1230 ppb cadmium.
The brand that Dr. G recommend the most (note again that he hadn’t heard from Navitas) is Santa Barbara Chocolate, and I was able to verify heavy metal testing for myself (though not in official COA documents). As of 12/13/21, their 100% Cacao Organic Unsweetened Chocolate Chips / Criollo Mini Wafers (I assume these are comparable to nibs, but probably easier to bake with or melt) have: Cadmium: .381ppm, Arsenic: <.020ppm, Lead: <.048ppm (48 ppb). They are in the process of reformulating all powders, which will be discontinued until they are pressed from the same cacao as the Criollo (note that the heavy-metal content may be different). The best thing about this company is that they test every lot using reputable testing companies!
Botanica Origins cacao powder was 99 ppb lead as of November 2021.
Another brand that shares testing is Terrasoul (1.5 teaspoons to be on the safer side; Dr. G said levels were approaching high levels at 1 tablespoon per day) will keep you under the daily recommended limit for lead and cadmium). I requested a COA from Terrasoul and it said lead 79 ppb, Cadmium 535 ppb. Not sure if I should mention that the customer service lady tried to tell me cacao isn’t a chocolate product and isn’t a risk for lead, but this kind of misinformation often happens when you reach out to regular customer service agents. Amazon associates link: https://amzn.to/3rLazdl
Next are Viva Naturals and Wildly Organic (both one teaspoon per day according to Dr. G).
“The Health Ranger” sells cacao nibs and a “cocoa energize” powder from a brand called Groovy Bee, and he reports that they call under his “A+” rating (note that isn’t his best rating). The lead would be under 120 ppb. I trust his testing.
Possibly OK Brands:
Consumer Reports found dark chocolate bars from Mast, Taza, Valrhona, and Ghirardelli with “ relatively” low levels of both lead and cadmium BUT they did not give absolute levels. So they may just be lower than other choices, but not truly low. Their results indicate which products had comparatively higher levels and are not assessments of whether a product exceeds a legal standard.
Evolved chocolate shared test results from their raw chocolate, but often chocolate makers show their raw materials to be low in lead but they don’t ever give out results for their finished products. The processing of the chocolate can introduce lead and cadmium too, and concentrate what’s in the raw cacao too I think. So unless they can give you results on their actual finished product that you buy, then this is totally worthless. I did see a coa for their midnight coconut at 75 ppb, but I’m not sure if that’s a finished product.
Uncommon Cacao supposedly tests their products for metals. I have requested data reports to check actual levels but never heard back.
Nuco claims to test and says they are under prop 65 thresholds, but they don’t share testing so we can’t know for sure.
Lead Safe Mama uses Holy Kakao but note that it isn’t lead free; it is just less likely to have high levels based on how it is produced. I have not seen any test data showing what levels of heavy metals it has.
Dr. G didn’t specify levels, but said Now and Sun Food had the highest levels.
Consumer Reports found the following brands of dark chocolate bars comparatively high (and in excess of California’s Maximum Allowable Dose Levels) either lead and/ or cadmium: Beyond Good, Equal Exchange, Lindt, Scharffen Berger, Alter Eco (however, read about them under the “better choices section), Pascha, Dove, Tony’s, Lily’s, Godiva, Chocolove, Endangered Spcecies, Trader Joe’s, Hu, Hersheys, Theo, Green & Black’s.
As You Sow compared heavy metal testing of some chocolate brands. The brands that tested unsafe included:
- Earth Circle Organics
- Endangered Species
- Equal Exchange
- Newman’s Own Organics
- Ritter Sport
- Trader Joe’s
- Whole Foods
Cocovia claims to have low cadmium but doesn’t mention lead on their website. By email they said: “While we do not normally provide product specifications or results of our testing, we can say that from our testing and those performed by others that the lead and cadmium content in CocoaVia™ is less than <0.3 mcg/g, per serving.” That equates to 300 ppb, which is not low. Note that they stated a level of concentration, and not an absolute amount and didn’t say what the serving size was, so we don’t know absolute amounts. But that concentration isn’t low.
They also stated the following, but note that though they said their process doesn’t concentrate metals, the metals ARE present. And they don’t claim to have low lead levels.
“CocoaVia™products are made with our proprietary Cocoapro® cocoa extract. While cocoa products can contain high levels of heavy metals, the process used to make our extract does not lead to a concentration of any heavy metals, including cadmium and lead. Mars Symbioscience has strict quality standards for CocoaVia™. Unfortunately, we cannot provide information on our product specifications or results of finished product testing to our consumers. However, we can say that the cocoa extract used in all CocoaVia™ products does not concentrate cadmium or lead, and has significantly lower cadmium levels than most commercial cocoa powders on the market today. We know from our testing and testing done by others that our products have significantly lower cadmium levels than many commercially-available cocoa powders on the market today. Consumer Lab performed testing on our capsules and determined there was 0.1 mcg/serving for Heart & Brain capsules and <.009 mcg/serving for Memory+. Mars Symbioscience has strict quality standards for CocoaVia™ products.”
Many brands have refused to provide data: Hershey’s/ Lily’s, Moon Juice, Trader Joe’s, Thrive Market, Kakao, and others. Some of these have prop 65 warnings, which is a bad sign that they might know for sure they have a high limit, but some companies choose to put the warning on “just in case” (because they can be fined if found exceeding levels without a warning label). But since we know that heavy metals are so ubiquitous in chocolate, best to not take the chance, and instead stick to brands that provide testing that shows lower amounts. Also, brands don’t usually put the prop 65 label unless they know the product is risky, because adding a label to your product that says it puts you at risk of cancer or birth defects doesn’t look good. Also, prop 65 labeling is only required in California. And companies such as Thrive are exempt from putting it in their actual product. So there are many reasons why the presence or absence of a prop 65 label shouldn’t be your only decision making factor (but if you see one, assume it’s legit).
Alternatives to Chocolate:
Australian Carob Co raw carob is about 10 ppb / .01 mg/g lead or less. They make carob chips too. I need to ask about cadmium but haven’t heard of it being high in carob. Affiliate link to powder: https://amzn.to/3AuIHOD and Carob chips: https://amzn.to/3FWGNqU, both of which I have purchased.
Terrasoul roasted carob is 98 ppb. I feel a bit silly because I assumed carob would be a safer choice, but it isn’t necessarily. I ordered this and it came with a prop 65 label. Amazon Associates link: https://amzn.to/32vJX7u
Another alternative to hot chocolate is teecino, a chicory tea. But I haven’t looked for testing on that. And it doesn’t really taste like chocolate. Neither does carob really.
White chocolate has cocoa butter but no cocoa/ cacao, so it can even be consumed by people with chocolate allergies. See the section about Navitas; the cocoa butter should not have the associated lead risks that the cacao /cocoa does.
A very healthy sweet option would be flavorful fruit, such as berries, mango or pineapple.
How to Calculate Levels of Heavy Metals:
Serving size matters. Even from the best brands, the maximum amount of cacao you should have in a day is only one teaspoon or one tablespoon at most.
Consumer Report’s article in December 2022 about dark chocolate bars found that for 23 of the bars, eating just an ounce a day would put an adult over a level that public health authorities and CR’s experts say may be harmful for at least one of those heavy metals. Five of the bars were above those levels for both cadmium and lead.
With a food like chocolate, ppb (which reflects the concentration of heavy metals; not an absolute amount) isn’t the most important thing to look at, and it’s NOT safe to assume that you’re all good with a low ppb. That kind of assumption can work for supplements, because the dose will inherently be a small, limited amount per day.
With chocolate and food, you need to consider serving sizes (and not just the serving size they list, but how much of a serving size you choose to eat), because you could eat large amounts above the sample (usually one gram) or serving size, which would equate to a large amount of total lead for the day, which is what prop 65 is based on (a limit per day, not ppb). Even with a low ppb, if you consumed a very large amount, you could consume dangerous levels.
Numbers reflected in my “better choices” list are sometimes stated PPB, even though that isn’t quite enough info, but sometimes is all I had. I recommend looking closely at the serving sizes and do some calculations to see the amounts you’re actually consuming. Prop 65 level is .5 ug of lead total per day. I still consider this to be too high, but is a good reference point.
Tablespoons/teaspoons are a helpful calculation but note that because such physical measurements can vary, weight would be more accurate. Also, a level teaspoon of sugar weighs about 4.2 grams, while a level teaspoon of salt weighs about 6 grams. This is because sugar is a denser ingredient than salt, meaning it weighs more. Check the back of the package for serving size information and use that in your calculations for that product, rather than a generic online calculator.
It also doesn’t lessen lead if you add chocolate to something and then dilute it with other ingredients. The amount of lead you are consuming from the chocolate stays the same.
Labeling Information to be Aware of, and What to Look For:
Many companies are not forthcoming and use shady language to try to persuade consumers that their products are safe and there isn’t anything to worry about, but the only way to know for sure is to see their Certificate of Analysis (COA) with heavy metal testing data from a third party. It’s best not to trust them without one. If they try to say it’s proprietary, there’s nothing about the heavy metals information that divulges any recipe formulas or sourcing.
Organic products are NOT less likely to have heavy metals.
Be wary of the language that companies try to use when explaining heavy metals in their products, such as the “naturally occurring” phrase to get out of labeling requirements (a loophole of prop 65 is it isn’t needed for “naturally occurring” heavy metals). Keep in mind, lead in soil still isn’t naturally occurring (it’s from past use of leaded gas) and is still harmful!
The absence of a prop 65 label does NOT automatically mean the product has low levels of heavy metals. There are other exemptions for the label, such as mail-order companies such as Thrive Market. Here is a post I wrote about Prop 65.
Also beware if they provide testing data only for the raw beans (especially if tested just after harvest), because the finished cocoa powder would have more than that. “Lead levels were low soon after beans were picked and removed from pods but increased as beans dried in the sun for days. During that time, lead-filled dust and dirt accumulated on the beans.” (Source).
See the notes under the Navitas brand, and for more information about how processing can lead to higher concentrations of metals.
Lastly, if a company tries to say that no heavy metals were detected, ask what their lower testing limit is; it is likely higher than zero. It would be highly improbable/ nearly impossible to have chocolate that was truly zero heavy metals.
For clarification about the differences between cocoa and cacao, Healthline gives a good overview, and also outlines the steps in processing (you can see there are many steps, thus many opportunities for heavy metal contamination. Basically, cacao usually is less processed and usually less risk for high heavy metal levels. However, some brands use terms like “raw cocoa” to describe cacao. Carob is a different product and mentioned further in the “alternatives to chocolate” section.
ForestFinest Consulting outlines how to avoid cadmium and lead in chocolate. Cadmium has been linked to cancer, and ends up in chocolate through the soil it is grown in. No limits for cadmium are in place in the U.S., except for Prop 65 in California, which requires a warning label on products if they contain more than 4.1 mg of cadmium per daily serving.
Lead Safe Mama outlines some other criteria that can be considered when choosing a chocolate company/ manufacturer, based on production methods that are less likely to add heavy metals through the production process.
Laws Regarding Heavy Metals in Chocolate:
The As You Sow organization provides a lot of background information about chocolate and lead here. Because of their lawsuit, As You Sow v. Trader Joe’s, Inc. et al, San Francisco Superior Court, Case No. CGC15548791, on February 15, 2018, there were new concentration level limits for lead and cadmium set forth in the consent judgement, which replaces the old Proposition 65 limits in the state of California for chocolate specifically. There is no nationwide limit for cadmium by the FDA.
Here is another article from Uncommon Cacao about cadmium in chocolate, regulation levels, lawsuits against chocolate brands, factors that may affect cocoa trees uptake of metals, and pitfalls of testing methodologies (this means that products may actually contain higher level of been reported). They say that “Even when a bean has higher cadmium content than the EU or Prop 65 allow, there are ways to alter a final product to enable compliance with chocolate limits. Using the beans for a milk chocolate, or blending multiple origins are both viable options.” The FDA also has placed a limit of no more than 0.1 ppm (100 ppb) of lead in children’s candy.
Realfarmacy wrote a piece that sums up some of the other links above, but I would not trust their links to products “free from heavy metal contamination.”
Concluding Thoughts and Tips:
I’m sorry to conclude that there just aren’t any cacao/ cocoa products that you can be 💯 sure are safe. Even carob can be high lead. And even the brands with lower levels sometimes come with prop 65 warning labels.
I know that for many people, their love of chocolate borders on obsession. I’m not trying to take that away from you, so I besides the information on brands and understanding lead levels, I can give a few tips on reducing your intake of heavy metals from chocolate. These include limiting yourself to 1 tablespoon or less per day (or calculating amounts to limit hazardous levels of consumption), opting for cacao nibs vs more processed forms, choosing brands that have lower testing results, and consuming chocolate with other food to potentially help block some absorption. For more information, see my “Things that Have Lead” post.
I personally don’t recommend giving babies or young children any form of chocolate products, because children are more susceptible to absorbing more heavy metals and suffering damage from them. At young ages you have complete control over what they eat, and they literally won’t know what they are missing. Also, if you are pregnant (or plan to be) or breastfeeding, I recommend being especially prudent with chocolate consumption. See “alternatives to chocolate” section above. 🍫
Since Alter Eco is pretty much the only company on my “better” list that sells ready-made chocolate bars and products, but Consumer Reports says their dark chocolate has relatively higher levels of Cadmium, I recommend experimenting with making your own chocolate bars! I have done it before and it’s quite simple. That way you get to control the levels and type of sugar as well. There are many simple recipes that use cacao or cocoa powder.
The good news is that there are ways to lower the heavy metals content in chocolate, and I hope that the attention brought by outlets such as Consumer Reports, as well as public interest, help encourage companies to take the necessary steps and that we will see better choices in the future.
I did want to add a little note about how I choose my blog topics because I was told it seems to be all doom and gloom. That is probably because I often choose based on what I think are the most concerning topics to address. Another huge factor in how I decide what topics to write, is if anyone else has covered everything I’m saying. Often I see glaring holes that I’m the only one completely filling. That’s why I wish I could get better reach with my blog posts. But few people want to read them because they don’t like hearing things such as that their beloved chocolate is a highly contaminated food. I encourage you to continue to learn more even it makes things harder to swallow!
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