A lot of research went into this post, but in the end, I decided to keep things simple and straightforward rather than technical. My research was limited to the laws and guidelines in the U.S., so some of the information might not apply if you’re located outside the States. Also, note that if you’re located within the U.S. and are importing cake decorating products from overseas or Canada, they might not be approved for use by the FDA and that the U.S. does not oversee labeling in other countries.
There is a lot of confusion about the term non-toxic and whether non-toxic products are safe for use on cakes and other confections. For our purposes, products intended for cake design can be easily divided into two categories: edible and non-edible. Let’s define edible as approved for human consumption by the US FDA. Non-edible elements are anything NOT approved for human consumption. When it comes to cake design, these can include, but are not limited to, products labeled “non-toxic”, “for decorative use only”, or “for the enhancement of decorative art”. Essentially, when it comes to professional cake design, either something is edible or it isn’t, and it isn’t up to us to decide. It’s up to the federal government.
The debate is over whether non-toxic products are safe to use on cakes. Many things are non-toxic. Rocks are non-toxic but I wouldn’t want to eat them. Printer ink, crayons, and house paint are non-toxic too. Play-Doh is non-toxic, but we wouldn’t consider it a food. In fact, there are many non-edible, non-toxic components of a cake: the board the cake sits on is non-toxic; wooden dowels are non-toxic as well. Theoretically, non-toxic products can safely come into contact with food.
Technically, non-toxic cake decorating elements such as drageés, glitter, metallic luster dust, and the like, should not be eaten and are for decorative purposes only. In reality, it is often the cake designer’s personal feelings on the matter that dictate whether he or she uses them or not. The spectrum ranges from those who refuse to use any non-edible elements on their cakes to those on the other end of the spectrum who have no problem spattering a cake in glitter and jabbing it all over with floral wire. Still trying to decide where you stand? The first step is to decide whether you’re comfortable with non-toxic decorative elements coming into contact with your cake. (Do you store your food in plastic containers? Then you’re probably okay with it. Are you someone who doesn’t even own a microwave? Then maybe not.) Then decide if you’re okay with people eating them. (I ate a lot of Play-Doh as a kid. Nothing bad happened to me, but I wouldn’t want to feed it to my children, nor would I want to eat is an adult.)
This is not a post strictly about glitter, but since there is so much debate about it (and I liked the alliterative affect for the blog post title), I’ll address it specifically. Wilton makes a somewhat translucent edible glitter called Cake Sparkles that I like. CK Products makes a glitter that is edible. (They also make non-edible glitters so be sure you’re buying the one that says Edible Glitter on the label.) Neither of these glitters, however, is what we traditionally think of as glitter. Glitter intended for cake design, usually called disco dust, twinkle dust, or pixie dust, as far as the FDA is concerned, does not differ at all from the giant 10 oz tub of made-in-China glitter you get in the craft section at Wal-Mart. Look closely at the labels below. The one on the left ($4.19 for 5 grams) is from Global Sugar Art and explicitly says on the label that it is “non-toxic” and “for the enhancement of decorative art and craft works”. The one on the right ($5.90 for 113 grams) also says “non-toxic”. Is there a difference between the two? Are they formulated differently? I honestly don’t know, but as far as the FDA is concerned, there is no difference at all.
As a professional, it is up to you to determine where you stand, establish some guidelines, and discuss your policy with your clients. Some cake artists are comfortable advising their clients that non-edible elements are for decorative purposes only and forging ahead. Others might outright refuse to use them. Those in the middle might, for example, recommend a faux tier for a client that insists on a glitter-covered cake. The question is not whether decorative cake design products such as glitter, metallic luster dusts, and drageés are edible. The question is whether you as the artist are comfortable using them on your cakes.
For further reading, check out some of these links: