Cadmium in Cacao

Cacao is an all-natural health food that can benefit our bodies in many ways. From supporting our natural immunity and cardiovascular health to enhancing our cognitive function and boosting energy levels, cacao is a powerhouse of natural bioactive compounds and nutrients. However, there are growing concerns surrounding cadmium content in cacao and the potential risks to our health from this.

What are the risks of cadmium exposure?

Cadmium is a non-essential heavy metal that is toxic to humans and exposure to cadmium can have major impacts on human health by damaging our immune system, disrupting our endocrine system, increasing oxidative stress and even increasing our risk of cancer1–6. One of the major mechanisms by which cadmium causes health problems is by triggering acute and chronic inflammatory responses throughout the body, such as in the heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs1–6. Cadmium is also able to accumulate in the liver and kidneys for up to 30 years meaning that exposure to low cadmium levels pose a serious health risk5,7.

What are the sources of cadmium exposure?

Cadmium is a naturally occurring heavy metal found in soil, rock, and waters, which enters the environment through volcanic activity, forest fires, and rock erosion and weathering8,9. However, cadmium is a versatile resource in modern industrial processes, such as in nickel-cadmium batteries, and is thus readily mined for by large mining companies6,8. Oil and mining companies that mine for resources other than cadmium still cause severe disruptions to the surrounding land. These disruptions lead to excess cadmium pollution in the surroundings, which can be taken up by plants from the air, water, and soil7,10–13. Some of the largest oil-producing countries in the world are based in South America, including Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia,14 and cacao has now been identified as a potential source for cadmium exposure7,10–13.


It is important to know that cacao is not the only source of cadmium contamination. Cadmium is also an issue in other crops around the world, including vegetables and fruits in Spain15, oats in Canada16, fruits in China17, and vegetables in Poland18. Exposure to cadmium is also common in those who smoke contaminated tobacco or consume foods that have been heavily treated with phosphate-based fertilisers7,8. Those who live and work in areas where mining occurs, such as near mines in South America or abandoned e-waste sites in China, are at especially high risk of cadmium exposure1–4,10. Research by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that foods consumed in higher amounts had the greatest impact on cadmium exposure, instead of foods that had the highest levels of cadmium19. This means that foods such as vegetables, grains and cereals, and foods containing high amounts of sugar have the greatest impact on cadmium exposure. 

What is being done about cadmium exposure?

Many efforts are being made to minimise and reduce cadmium contamination in cacao crops in South America. Cadmium uptake by plants is influenced by many factors and high levels of cadmium in the soil does not always mean that plants will have high levels of cadmium7,9. Additionally, cadmium concentration decreases in the cacao tree from the roots to the rest of the tree so that cadmium concentration is generally lower in the cacao beans themselves7,9,12. The process of cacao fermentation after harvesting has also been shown to decrease cadmium levels in cacao12.


Properties of the soil in which cacao is grown can also be adjusted to reduce cadmium uptake, such as the pH, texture, soil composition, and the natural microbes present7,9. Organic farming that makes use of natural fertilisers and pesticides can also minimise cadmium uptake by cacao as synthetic fertilisers and pesticides are often contaminated by cadmium7.


Regulations by the European Union (EU) specify maximum levels of cadmium allowed in various cacao-based products, which have been in place since January 201920. Regular testing of cacao-based products for cadmium and other heavy metals is thus important to ensure that those products contain safe levels of cadmium. Our cacao is regularly tested for cadmium and other heavy metals to ensure that our products are always within the safety regulations set out by the EU. Our latest test showed our cacao to contain 0.4 mg/kg of cadmium, which is below the maximum permitted cadmium levels set out by the EU.

 

Table 1: The maximum permitted levels of cadmium in cacao-based products as specified by the EU.

Specific cocoa and chocolate productsMaximum permitted cadmium levels
Milk chocolate with ≤30% total dry cocoa solids0.10 mg/kg
Chocolate with ≥30 to <50% total dry cocoa solids0.30 mg/kg
Chocolate with ≥50% total dry cocoa solids0.80 mg/kg
Cacao powder (as an ingredient in sweetened cocoa powder) sold to the final consumer0.60 mg/kg

The world’s highest quality cacao is produced in South America but the risk of cadmium exposure has become a growing health concern. To ensure that cadmium levels in our products are minimised and that they remain of a high quality, we regularly test our cacao for cadmium and other heavy metals and make our products by farm-to-table organic farming. This ensures that our products are safe for the environment, safe for the farmers to grow, and safe for you to consume.


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References

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(2) Hossein-Khannazer, N.; Azizi, G.; Eslami, S.; Mohammed, H. A.; Fayyaz, F.; Hosseinzadeh, R.; Usman, A. B.; Kamali, A. N.; Mohammadi, H.; Jadidi-Niaragh, F.; Dehghanifard, E.; Noorisepehr, M. The Effects of Cadmium Exposure in the Induction of Inflammation. Immunopharmacol. Immunotoxicol.2020, 42 (1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923973.2019.1697284.

(3) Liu, L.; Tao, R.; Huang, J.; He, X.; Qu, L.; Jin, Y.; Zhang, S.; Fu, Z. Hepatic Oxidative Stress and Inflammatory Responses with Cadmium Exposure in Male Mice. Environ. Toxicol. Pharmacol.2015, 39 (1), 229–236. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.etap.2014.11.029.

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(11) Engbersen, N.; Gramlich, A.; Lopez, M.; Schwarz, G.; Hattendorf, B.; Gutierrez, O.; Schulin, R. Cadmium Accumulation and Allocation in Different Cacao Cultivars. Sci. Total Environ.2019, 678, 660–670. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.05.001.

(12) Vanderschueren, R.; De Mesmaeker, V.; Mounicou, S.; Isaure, M.-P.; Doelsch, E.; Montalvo, D.; Delcour, J. A.; Chavez, E.; Smolders, E. The Impact of Fermentation on the Distribution of Cadmium in Cacao Beans. Food Res. Int.2020, 127, 108743. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2019.108743.

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(17) Li, J. T.; Qiu, J. W.; Wang, X. W.; Zhong, Y.; Lan, C. Y.; Shu, W. S. Cadmium Contamination in Orchard Soils and Fruit Trees and Its Potential Health Risk in Guangzhou, China. Environ. Pollut.2006, 143 (1), 159–165. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2005.10.016.

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(19) Cadmium dietary exposure in the European population | European Food Safety Authority https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/efsajournal/pub/2551 (accessed May 28, 2021).

(20) Commission Regulation (EU) No 488/2014 of 12 May 2014 Amending Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 as Regards Maximum Levels of Cadmium in Foodstuffs Text with EEA Relevance; 2014; Vol. 138.