Chocolate is a commodity that is frequently purchased with an overall retail value of 18.6 billion dollars in the United States alone (2017). With such a mass amount of consumers it is important to uphold safety regulations in order to ensure that the product being purchased is indeed safe for consumption. The consumer often places trust in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to properly vet their store bought goods and designate them as safe for human consumption. Recent chemical analyses from the University of Campinas, Brazil, suggests that levels of cadmium and lead found in chocolate may be hazardous to consumers. These chemical elements are most likely introduced to the product during the preservation and manufacturing processes of production (Villa et al. 2014, 8762). Who then oversees such processes? What regulations are currently in place by the Food and Drug Administration regarding chocolate? What safety precautions will arise in the chocolate industry due to this new found discovery?
According to Jack Goody (2013) there are four steps that connote the industrialization of products meant for consumption. These four steps include preservation, mechanization, retailing and transportation (Goody 2013, 72). It is within these first two steps of preservation and mechanization, or manufacturing, that Villa et al. (2014) suggests hazardous chemicals have seeped into this widely consumed product. Preservation of food during early industrialization was often met through methods of salting, adding sugar, canning and artificial freezing (Goody 2013, 73). According to the Hershey’s company, chocolate is currently preserved by its’ wrapping and its’ placement in a cool, dry place. The packaging of this food, meant for preservation, is created during the mechanization phase of industrialization. Presilla (2009), author of The New Taste of Chocolate, points out that at “many factories the wrapping is done by machine” although others unfold and wrap each bar by hand (2009, 117).” Villa et al. identifies chocolate wrappers as one of the means responsible for initially introducing lead and cadmium into the product. The trace amounts found in chocolate vary depending on the brand which may have something to do with the differing approaches each company takes when wrapping their product.
“…A linear correlation exists between the cocoa content and the concentrations of [cadmium and lead], which suggests that the main source of contamination of [cadmium] and [lead] in chocolates is the cocoa used in the manufacturing process (Villa et al. 2014, 8762).”
Title 21 of the Food and Drug Administration requires the declaration of all of the ingredients used in food to be stated on a label that can be easily seen by the consumer (FDA 2017). If chocolate is manufactured with alkali ingredients or neutralizing agents the manufacturing company is required to state that on that label as well. There has been recent controversy as to whether or not this label should include a warning due to the exposure of chemicals such as cadmium and lead. After all, California’s Proposition 65 requires “warning before exposure to chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity (Abelson 1987, 1553).” On February 15, 2018 a California Superior Court judge in San Francisco finally set requirements for such warnings. These warnings will be required on labels in California based on the the levels of lead and cadmium in the product as well as the level of cacao content (2018).
This warning is required by California’s Proposition 65 to be listed on any product that may expose a consumer to chemicals that cause cancer or reproductive harm.
Traditionally, or before chocolate was developed to be sold in mass quantities during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there were no alkali ingredients or neutralizing agents stirred in to these recipes. There was no need for labels marking this product as hazardous. Instead, the ingredient list could be summed up by indigenous herbs and spices.
When the Spaniards arrived to New Mexico and discovered chocolate in the 1500s, they also discovered the concept chokola’j, the act of drinking chocolate in social contexts. Colonists decided to bring this concept back with them to the Old World as a way of bringing together members of the opposite sex for casual conversation. When the realization occurred in the early 19th century that chocolate could be hardened and eaten in a solid form, nations such as Northern and Central Europe decided to capitalize on the idea and turn a profit. By 1828 a Dutch chemist by the name of Van Houten had synthesized a manufacturing process that would take the world by storm (Coe and Coe 1996, 233-234). Dutch-Process cocoa was able to “neutralize some of the harsh acid components of the original cacao” by treating cocoa with alkali (Martin 2018, Lecture). The color of the cocoa becomes much darker while the flavor becomes milder as is seen with the Oreo (Martin 2018, Lecture).
The photo listed above is from a 1945 issue of Parent’s magazine. An advertisement for Van Houten’s Dutch-Process cocoa is listed to the left of the magazine spread.
Many corporations have made a large capital from innovations such as the manufacturing of Dutch-Process cocoa as well as the creation of milk chocolate in 1879 (Coe and Coe 1996, 247). However, there were several scandals along the way. It was eventually uncovered that companies would substitute cacao related ingredients with other additives in a scheme to get rich quick. Coe and Coe quote a French author from 1875 who discusses such scandals, claiming that companies have been able to replace cocoa butter with additives such as “olive oil, sweet almond oil, egg yolks, or suet of veal and mutton” with an addition of foreign materials like gum or dextrin in order to keep the chocolate from spoiling (Coe and Coe 1996, 243).
Of course, scandals like these were soon put to justice as the health commission for the analysis of foods was finally created in Europe in 1850 (Coe and Coe 1996, 244). Today the United States FDA regulations require labels stating the ingredients used in manufacturing their chocolate. However, there is still a widespread desire to return to this notion of “pure” chocolate.
Coe and Coe discuss a push to return to a more natural version of cacao, one that contains less sugar content and additives. There is also a push to return to local markets and purchase cacao that comes from small producers rather than large factories. Perhaps this push will create a chain reaction in which the safety precautions and labels, such as those mandated from Proposition 65, will no longer be needed. If in fact high levels of cadmium and lead are positively correlated with machines used in corporate manufacturing, then the desire for a product that is developed with more of a personal touch, as seen in companies who wrap their chocolate bars by hand, may in turn decrease the level of hazardous chemicals consumed.
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