Starbucks, Nestlé Hot Chocolate Mixes Contain Illegal Amounts Of Lead

According to a recent study performed by Consumer Reports, an alarming number of cocoa products contain dangerous levels of lead or cadmium, including the hot chocolate sold at Starbucks. At almost $5 for a Starbucks grande hot chocolate, the pricy beverage is 159% over California's maximum allowable dose levels for lead, the benchmark used for this study since the federal government has not set limits on heavy metal levels in all foods.

The manufacturer of the hot cocoa mix sold at Starbucks locations, Nestlé, spoke with Consumer Reports about the findings, saying it works with its "suppliers on an ongoing basis to closely monitor and minimize the presence of these substances in our foods as much as possible." Nestlé was not alone; Walmart's Great Value Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa Mix was the worst culprit at 349% over the limit, and Trader Joe's Organic Hot Cocoa Mix also tested high in lead, but neither has commented publicly on the study.

Cocoa products commonly contain trace amounts of lead since it's naturally present in our environment. The beans can pick it up from dust as they dry outdoors. Products with a higher percentage of cocoa solids, like dark chocolate versus milk or white chocolate, tend to pose the highest risk of metal exposure. However, that would suggest that all the brands had similar test results, and they didn't.

How can consumers protect themselves?

According to the report, the Food and Drug Administration remarked, "Experts from around the world have found that chocolate is a minor source of exposure to these contaminants internationally." However, since heavy metals are naturally present in whole foods we consume, like vegetables, fish, tap water, and meat, monitoring and limiting the added exposure in processed foods makes sense. Without federal limits on heavy metals in all food groups, the FDA leaves it up to the manufacturers to ensure the food is safe for consumers.

The burden has been placed on the consumers to research the brands they purchase. As this report outlines, paying a premium for an item does not mean it's better or safer for your family to consume. Ghirardelli Premium Hot Cocoa Mix and Swiss Miss Milk Chocolate Flavor Hot Cocoa had lead levels half as high as Starbucks', suggesting companies have some level of control over exposure. Eric Boring, a Consumer Reports chemist, said, "There's enough variation in the lead levels within each category of foods that it's clear factors other than cocoa content affect lead levels, and that means manufacturers have the ability to reduce the heavy metals in their products to the lowest levels possible."

There is no safe level of lead we should consume, but young children are at a higher risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control, lead exposure can lead to "brain damage, slowed growth, learning, behavior, hearing, and speech problems," so try to limit exposure.