December 12, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Methyl Bromide & Chocolate

I was going to buy a chocolate bar at a supermarket recently, and a fellow shopper informed me that the source chocolate that constitutes most chocolate bars (even the one I was buying, a 70% cacao Chocolate Santander bar) is treated with methyl bromide, a potentially harmful chemical, to inhibit the growth of fungus, etc. and exponentially lengthen shelf life of the finished product.

She said that one of the few chocolate bars available that doesn't undergo such treatment is Kallari.

You will note that the issue of methyl bromide treatment is addressed on the Kallari website.

Is there any truth to these claims?
If so, what health risks does ingestion of chocolate that has been treated with methyl bromide entail?

Are there any other brands of chocolate in addition to Kallari that may be somewhat safer to consume than those treated with methyl bromide?

Finally, what is your informed opinion on chocolate consumption generally?

-- Tim Fisher

Boston, MA

Those claims are indeed true.

Remember, cocoa beans are a crop, just like fruits, vegetables, and legumes. This means you have conventional (grown with pesticides and chemicals) and organic (pesticide-free) varieties.

Methyl bromide is usually used to fumigate cacao beans when they depart from -- and arrive at -- ports.

Since it is not at all uncommon to have insect infestations on cocoa beans, methyl bromide is used as insurance. It also, as you state in your question, prevents the formation of fungus during the transportation process.

In fact, some countries -- particularly those that rely very heavily on cocoa beans for trade -- spray methyl bromide on the cocoa bean crops to ensure minimal losses.

Methyl bromide is so controversial -- it also happens to be a class 1 ozone-depleting substance -- that the Environmental Protection Agency only allows very specific uses (one of them being the fumigation of cocoa) in the United States.

The only way to ensure you are getting methyl bromide-free chocolate is by looking for a "certified organic" label, or going directly to the company's website.

I am sure that any company not using methyl bromide will be more than happy to let site visitors know!

I know, for instance, that Dagoba does not spray their cocoa beans with methyl bromide.

Although inhalation of the gas is known to have very serious effects on the lungs, kidney, and central nervous system, there isn't much information regarding health risks in the context of eating food that has been treated with methyl bromide.

Some in the industry believe that since this is a very quickly-dissipating gas, only minimal -- well below the permitted standard -- amounts make it to the actual food.

As for my informed opinion on chocolate, I think a high-quality product makes for a most excellent culinary treat.

Although higher cocoa contents offer more phytochemicals and antioxidants, it is always best to consider chocolate a sweet delicacy best enjoyed in small portions, rather than a "health food."


Christine said...

I was just told to drink cranberry juice to help treat a UTI. The nurse said that this was due to the juice's acidity. This confused me because I thought that food from the stomach is neutralized by a base before getting digested in the small intestine, so it wouldn't matter how acidic foods are to begin with. So, is there any reason to drink cranberry juice for a UTI? I'm cautious because all of the juice brands I've seen at stores have a lot of sugar, and drinking cranberry juice needlessly seems like a way to ingest a lot of empty calories.

Anonymous said...

Point for organic!