Before Tide Pods inexplicably captured America’s imagination, edible glitter enjoyed a few moments of Instagram fame in 2017 — peaking with a latte topped with a liberal sprinkle of glitter that caught diners’ eyes in November. Since then, other restaurants have added the ingredient to their own menus, resulting in colorful dishes like countless glitter lattes, glittery strawberry jelly, “sparkly” iced tarts, glitter smoothies, and even glittery gravy, which one London pub served alongside its Christmas pie.
This week, glittery food hits the big time. Mardi Gras 2018 inspired glitter-topped hot chocolate. Los Angeles-based Astro Doughnuts just announced a glittery gold doughnut to celebrate the Oscars. And for Valentine’s Day, burger chain Shake Shack will unleash a glittery pink milkshake in select cities; dubbed the “Love Shack,” it’s a Valentine’s Day-themed strawberry milkshake topped with whipped cream and glitter.
But as the glitter trend gains steam, the FDA cautions that all that glitters is not edible, and some environmental scientists are trying to get us to give up glitter altogether. So what’s the deal with glitter in food?
Why are people eating glitter?
Like raccoons, people like shiny things. Researchers have found evidence that this preference starts in infancy, with some suggesting that it’s tied to our “innate need for water.” Non-flavored edible glitter, which is often sold at craft stores, adds no additional flavor to dishes — it’s a purely aesthetic add for those times when drinking plain coffee or eating a cupcake with dull icing just doesn’t seem exciting enough. But not everyone is happy with the trend, and some people have complained that certain glitters add an unappealing gritty texture to the food.
Is this the same glitter I used in arts and crafts?
No. Or at least it shouldn’t be. There are two forms of glitter you’ll find topping cakes and drinks: edible and non-toxic, and that classification depends on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. agency that regulates, among other things, what products are considered safe for human consumption.
Edible products are cleared for human consumption in the U.S. and are mandated to include an ingredient list. Non-toxic products won’t kill you, but they’re not considered food, and not subject to the same rigorous testing as products designed for consumption. Play-Doh, for example, is non-toxic, but no one would recommend that you eat it as a snack.
“Consumers should carefully check the label of decorative products they consider for use on foods,” says FDA spokesperson Dr. Marianna Naum. “Most edible glitters and dusts also state ‘edible’ on the label. If the label simply says ‘non-toxic’ or ‘for decorative purposes only’ and does not include an ingredients list, the product should not be used directly on foods.”
Concerns over edible glitter consumption first emerged in 2012, thanks to an episode of the cultishly adored reality program The Great British Bake Off: In the episode, one contestant sprinkled glitter atop her cupcakes but admitted she wasn’t sure if the product was edible. The episode quickly made glitter one the top 10 food safety concerns in Britain.
What’s the glitter on my food made of?
Ingredients in edible glitter commonly include “sugar, acacia (gum arabic), maltodextrin, cornstarch, and color additives specifically approved for food use, including mica-based pearlescent pigments and FD&C colors such as FD&C Blue No. 1.” Barring any food allergies, it can be sprinkled liberally on or in your food, should you be so inclined.
Non-toxic or “food contact” glitter, which is often used on cakes, is technically safe to consume in small quantities, but that doesn’t mean you should be using it as an everyday garnish. The FDA issued an advisory statement about glitter in 2016, noting it had recently become “aware that some non-edible decorative glitters and dusts are promoted for use on foods.”
According to the FDA, there is no difference between this non-toxic decorative food glitter and the glitter that you poured over construction paper as a child; non-toxic glitter can be made of plastic. This glitter is sometimes labeled as for “display” only, with fine print explaining that it is not intended to be eaten and should be removed from food stuffs prior to consumption — and challenging task when it’s being applied directly to icing or whipped cream.
Should I be wary of glitter on food?
Eating small amounts of non-toxic glitter on food will not kill you, so there’s no need to panic if you accidentally consume something meant to be decorative. People with some gastrointestinal disorders that have trouble with digesting small, hard food stuffs like seeds may want to be particularly careful in these cases. “Non-toxic glitter may not kill you, but don’t eat it,” says Dr. Zhaoping Li, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition at UCLA. “At least not regularly or large quantities.”
So you can feel free to cover your coffee, cakes, steak, fish, and other food products with edible glitter — if you can find it. It’s far more difficult to find a bottle of edible glitter in a store than the non-toxic version. If you’re eating at a professional bakery, you can ask what type of glitter is used, but employees may not know offhand: When asked, staff at one New York City bakery took 9 minutes to confirm (the answer was a gelatin based, edible glitter).
But Li still cautions against going overboard with the edible sparkly food. “Our body can only take care of it if we only consume things like glitter foods once a while,” she says, “in small amounts.”
Caroline Weinberg is a science and health writer based in New York City.
Editor: Erin DeJesus