Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate, Other Brands Contain Lead: Is It Still Safe to Eat?

A dietitian weighs in.

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In late 2022, a study in Consumer Reports claimed that dark chocolate from Trader Joe's and many other brands, including Dove, Lindt, and Hershey's, contained unsafe levels of lead, as well as cadmium. While some brands had one or the other, Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Lover's Chocolate 85% Cacao was substantially high in both contaminants. If you’ve already consumed the bar, don’t panic. But the study may help you make more informed purchasing choices in the future. 

“Unfortunately, exposure to lead and cadmium via food is hard to avoid entirely,” says licensed dietitian Lindley Wells, CNS, LDN. “The most common way we as humans are exposed to lead and cadmium is via ingestion of food that has been grown in contaminated soil or has been exposed to contaminated water.” Some foods have been found to have higher levels of these metals, including puréed baby foods, chocolate, dietary supplements, protein powders, and fruit juices.

So what’s so bad about these chemicals? “Cadmium is toxic to our kidneys and can impact the minerals in our bones,” Wells says of the toxin, which is classified as a carcinogen. “Lead can impact all our organs, but often impacts our brain. Long-term elevated exposure to lead can impact memory, attention, and the ability to learn and focus,” she adds. 

The good news is that if you’re concerned about over consumption, a blood draw at your doctor’s office can help check your current levels, and your provider can help analyze the results to see if they’re within a safe range. Most people do have some amount of lead and cadmium in their body, which isn’t cause for major concern.

Is Dark Chocolate Good for You?

In the sweet tooth community, dark chocolate is known for its health benefits, thanks to cocoa’s high concentration of antioxidants, including catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins. 

“Epicatechin specifically has a positive impact on vascular health, and also has anti-inflammatory properties,” Wells notes. “Additionally, the antioxidants in cocoa can impact insulin resistance and reduce one’s risk of developing diabetes. Cocoa can help protect our skin from damage from UV radiation, and studies have shown consumption of cocoa can have a positive impact on our brain function and mood.”

Instead of dropping dark chocolate all together, it’s important to be a more informed consumer in order to avoid potentially toxic chocolate, which could negate all the cocoa’s health benefits. The health halo of consuming dark chocolate—eating it because you believe it to be healthy—and ignoring sugar content, plus the contaminants, is also an effect consumers need to be aware of. Pecans, blueberries, strawberries and raspberries are all high in antioxidants, and offer additional nutritional benefits (including vitamins and minerals) for a more well-rounded snack.

How to Shop for Dark Chocolate 

When shopping for dark chocolate, Wells recommends purchasing chocolate bars that are organic and have limited ingredients lists. While 70 percent or more cacao is the recommended amount for dark chocolate’s health benefits, switching to lower cacao levels or milk chocolate on occasion can also help mitigate toxin intake.

Additionally, Wells agrees with Consumer Reports’ research that dark chocolate should be a treat, not a daily indulgence, Aim for a serving of about one ounce of chocolate a few times a week, not daily. And to prioritize eating chocolates with relatively low levels of lead and cadmium, Consumer Reports’ top five suggestions are below:

Mast Organic Dark Chocolate (80% Cocoa)
Taza Chocolate Organic Deliciously Dark Chocolate (70% Cacao) 
Ghirardelli Intense Dark Chocolate (86% Cacao) 
Ghirardelli Intense Dark Chocolate Twilight Delight (72% Cacao) 
Valrhona Abinao Dark Chocolate (85% Cacao) 

These five bars low in toxins prove that it’s possible to make dark chocolate bars without all the contaminants. That is, while Trader Joe’s chocolate is still on the market, you may want to make more informed decisions about what types of dark chocolate you purchase and consume.

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