Oct. 11, 2012 — -- All that glitters isn't gold when it comes to cupcakes and other baked goods.
After warnings were published by the Food Standards Association in the U.K., a survey published by the West Yorkshire Trading Standards Service revealed that the edible cupcake glitter found in baking supply stores was made of plastic and brass.
"The West Yorkshire Public Analyst has found that many glitters are made of inedible polyester plastic of the type used to make drink bottles. Under the microscope the plastic is revealed as being in tiny hexagons with jagged edges. In another case the cake glitter was actually finely powdered brass," the survey stated.
"Anyone manufacturing cup cakes to sell should make detailed checks on what they are buying as ingredients. Anyone buying cakes with glitter decorations should ask the baker what the glitter is actually made of before eating them. Do not assume that plastic glitter would just pass through the digestive system without causing harm, because no-one actually knows," said Graham Hebblethwaite, chief officer of West Yorkshire Trading Standards Service, in a statement.
This past April, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the U.K. published guidelines on the use of glitters and dusts in food, stating "'non-toxic' glitters and dusts are not made from edible materials and must not be eaten."
The FSA says that "Glitter manufacturers have to provide suppliers with a 'declaration of compliance' to show the product(s) meet the requirements of legislation for food contact materials and articles."
In the U.S., the typical ingredients in decorative glitter, titanium dioxide, iron oxide, carmine and mica, are considered safe by the FDA because they are used in such small amounts.
"It looks like none of them are likely at all to cause serious harm," said Dr. Hannah Hays, a medical toxicology fellow at The Ohio State University Department of Emergency Medicine.
"Anything in large enough doses can be a poison," said Hays, mentioning that the dust becomes a risk for people who inhale the product in plants.
The issue is that not all sites and stores know the ingredients of the glitter they sell. A salesperson at a popular cake supply store said it was "ok to eat" the glitter dust they sold because the labeling said it was "non-toxic."
But "non-toxic" should not be confused with "edible,", said Dr. David Acheson, partner and managing director, Food and Import Safety, of Leavitt Partners.
Of the non-toxic glitter sold at baking stores, "It's probably not smart to eat it," says Acheson, even though "chances are infinitesimally low that it would cause problems."
While he says you shouldn't panic if you've already eaten the glitter, he recommends: "If you're going to a store look for something labeled edible, if it says non-toxic think twice."
Professional pastry chefs use the glitter dust in restaurants and bakeries.
Francois Payard of Francois Payard Bakery has been using the product for years on his silver and gold-dusted macaron cookies.
The chef only uses edible glitter and purchases it from a pastry supplier in France. These products are much more expensive than the ones sold in retail stores.
"You have to know which one you buy," he said, "It's edible but you can't have one pound of it. It's not something that would make your whole meal."
To ensure they use a small amount, Payard mixes the dust with 90 percent alcohol and air-brushes his signature cookies.
In 1977, the FDA addressed the issue of cake decorations when silver balls, known as dragees, became popular.
The guidelines state that when the dragees "are sold exclusively for decorating cakes and are used under conditions which preclude their consumption as confectionery, they are not considered to be in the category of a food or confectionery."
In 2003, dragees were pulled from California shelves after a Napa lawyer filed a lawsuit alleging the silver decorations were toxic.
While California stores still don't carry dragees, many websites post information on their products that can be confusing.
The Baker's Kitchen online store writes: "They are safe to eat, but should be removed before serving because of the real metal coating. (That means they won't hurt you if you eat them, they do have a sugar center, it's just that the FDA has recommended that they are for decorative use only, and they are technically not a food item)."