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Cake decorating glitter: Do you know what’s in it and is it safe?

Cake decorating products manufactured by a SA-based business have been found to be contaminated. Read more...

by: Julie Donald | 19 Jul 2018

(images: iStock)

In case you missed it, there is a controversy raging in the cake decorating world. The issue came to light recently when a South African company, Rolkem, recalled a product from the international market due to contamination.

Two products that they supply (super gold and super rose gold) were recalled (it is notable that this was done at the request of Rolkem) in February 2018. The contamination was of the gold nanoparticles in these gold products and it is believed that their supplier sent incorrectly labelled product that was in fact not 24-carat gold (which IS edible) but a lower carat which means that the gold has been mixed with other metals. In this case, brass containing copper. Copper is not edible and in significant amounts can cause harm.  

                                                           (image: Cake-Stuff)

This recall has been contained, but at the time the FSA (Food Standards Agency based in the UK) requested certification for all 400 + Rolkem products sold in the UK. These were not supplied in the time set out by the FSA and as a result, the FSA issued a FAFA (Food Alert For Action) meaning that none of the Rolkem products can be sold in the UK until they have passed the test.  

This has resulted in two local consumer watchdog interviews with Wendy Knowler on East Coast Radio and Cape Talk.

Edible glitter?

First thing's first... “edible glitter” is not edible. It is, in fact, tiny pieces of plastic, which is why it is labelled “food touch approved” or “non-toxic”.  It should not be eaten and should only be used on decorations that are not going to be eaten. Glitter is just another horrible micro plastic that inevitably ends up in the sea or soil, so let’s just decide to stop using it. Please!

This also highlights that some plastics are of questionable origin. Some cheap plastics are made from recycled plastics, bulked up with other waste, that is not food safe. This can be a concern with cheap decorating tools and toys used in cake decorating. 

Secondly, gold leaf isn’t edible unless it is the good stuff. 24-carat gold is edible, but most gold leaf available is not 24-carat gold. Some packaging is even labelled 'imitation gold leaf'.  This means that it contains copper. How will you know it's the real deal? Look carefully on the packaging for the astronomically high price of 24-carat gold! 

Do you know your E-numbers?

The 'E'in E numbers doesn’t always stand for Evil. E numbers are a way of codifying food additives. I strongly recommend checking these when you see them on your packaging because it strikes me as another way to bamboozle consumers. For example E100 is turmeric, a lovely, natural colourant, however, E239 is hexamethylene tetramine, a preservative that is also an ingredient in C4 explosives (hmmm…  yummy).

A note on additives 

A few additives are allowed in some countries and not others, which is why some products are made differently in different countries. This leads me to the conclusion that if the additive isn’t allowed in the EU, is it any less harmful in the UK? For example, the FSA is trying to phase out azo dyes such as tartrazine that is linked to hyperactivity in children.  Most cake decorators know the struggle to get a perfect red. Ponceau (a well-known red azo dye gives a great colour, but we have to ask, at what cost?)

This highlights a concern I have with Rolkem’s public statement

"Rolkem produces two types of batches every day, one for export and one for local distribution each batch of products must comply to their respective standards, thus explaining the recall of Super Gold and Special Rose Gold in the UK alone, and to clarify that the FAFA issued by the FSA in the UK has no effect nor does it apply to products sold here in South-Africa."

Does this mean that South African standards don’t mind if there is copper present in the product? One might argue that these compounds are only being consumed in tiny quantities, however, with the prevalence of colourants in pretty much all processed foods and a general trend for more natural, unprocessed food, I think it prudent that we know what goes into our food.

Food labelling

One of the problems in South Africa is that the food safety and labelling are under-regulated and largely unenforced. The food labelling laws form part of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act (Act 54 of 1972) and the Department of Health with the aid of Law enforcement are charged with enforcing and overseeing these laws. However, there is little or no regulation checking that the labelled items are actually what is in the product. The main reason for this is that testing is expensive and onerous.  

This leads me to another issue with the Rolkem statement.. "Although all batches of products are thoroughly tested prior to dispatch, during the manufacturing production process a key ingredient in the formula had bypassed our internal checks/quality controls."

If all batches are thoroughly tested, why can the company not supply the certificates immediately? As previously mentioned, they have stated that they were not able to comply with the request in the time they were given by the FSA.

When ingredients are obtained from another source, the ingredient list is presumably copied from the supplier. For example, if you make chocolate chip cookies, you know where the butter, sugar and flour came from, but the ingredient list of the chocolate chips would need to be found on the packaging of the chocolate chips. If you obtain an incorrect ingredient list and don’t test the product then the whole chain of trust is broken. This is the reason that batch numbers are so important, in the case of an accidental contamination.

The chain of trust is key in all food production, even if you buy a cake from your local baker. Unless you specifically request an ingredient list, you are unlikely to know exactly what went into your cake and many bakers aren’t even aware of some of these issues.   

When we know better, we do better.  

Julie Donald owns and runs a successful cake business in Cape Town. She is an accomplished pastry chef and has been running courses and workshops on the art of cake decorating and sugar craft for many years. 

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