While you can enjoy a cup of hot cocoa year-round, there's something a little extra special about sipping on that warm, rich drink during the colder months of the year. However, you might want to consider some concerning findings from a new study before reaching for a box of hot chocolate mix this holiday season.
Consumer Reports (CR), a nonprofit organization that conducts independent product testing and research, recently tested a wide range of different chocolate products to see which ones contain higher levels of toxic heavy metals like lead and cadmium. Because there are currently no federal limits for the amount of lead and cadmium most foods can contain, CR measured each product against California's maximum allowable dose levels (MADL) for lead and cadmium in food, which it described as "the most protective available."
The state's MADL for lead is 0.5 micrograms per day, while its MADL for cadmium is 4.1 micrograms per day. So any chocolate products that exceed California's limits contain comparatively higher levels of heavy metals and therefore could pose a greater risk to consumers.
Hot chocolate mixes were among the products included in the study—and the testing results for several popular brands may shock you. Of the six mixes that CR tested, four contained levels of lead that exceeded California's limit: Nestlé, Trader Joe's, Starbucks, and Great Value (Walmart's house brand).
The CR found that one serving of Nestlé's Rich Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa Mix contained 108% of the amount of lead permitted under California's limit, while Trader Joe's Organic Hot Cocoa Mix contained 112%. Starbucks' Classic Hot Cocoa contained 159%, while Great Value's Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa Mix was the highest of all with 345%.
All of the mixes also contained some cadmium, but none exceeded California's limit for the heavy metal.
The presence of heavy metals in food is concerning because consistent, long-term exposure to even small amounts of those materials can lead to health problems in humans, CR said. Pregnant people and young children are at the greatest risk since the metals can cause developmental problems and affect brain development. Adults who are frequently exposed may also suffer from hypertension, immune system suppression, kidney damage, and reproductive issues.
Even if you don't frequently eat chocolate, consumers can be exposed from common foods like sweet potatoes and spinach that also contain heavy metals.
"All these sources can add up, so it is important to be aware of different pathways that contribute to your overall heavy metal intake," CR said.
None of the brands that tested high in lead responded to CR's requests for comment aside from Nestlé. A spokesperson for the company told CR that it stands by the safety of its products and works with "suppliers on an ongoing basis to closely monitor and minimize the presence of these substances in our foods as much as possible."
Luckily for hot cocoa lovers, there were two brands that tested lower in lead during the study: Ghirardelli's Premium Hot Cocoa Mix and Swiss Miss' Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa. The Ghirardelli mix contained 76% of the lead permitted under California's limit, while the Swiss Miss version contained 80%.
The CR did note that no amount of heavy metals in foods is technically considered safe. However, these two brands could be a slightly safer choice for consumers who want to limit their exposure as much as possible.