The 5,000 year-old tradition of Ayurveda offers a wealth of information about herbs, spices, flowers and woods, but what about the precious metals found below the earth? As it turns out, the tradition of decorating treats in Asia with gold or silver foil originates from Ayurvedic medicinal practices.
South Asian sweets are often decorated in a silver, and rarely gold, foil to make them more appetizing. This edible silver or gold leaf is called vark, chandi-ka-vark, or varak (German paper), and extremely fine at between .2µm and .8µm in thickness. It is so fragile that it will break on contact with the skin, and is applied directly to the food from between the layers of paper used to pack it.
The Origin of Edible Gold and Silver Leaf
Ayurveda has long taught that gold is an aphrodisiac and silver has anti-microbial properties. The practice of eating precious metals is not unique to the Indian subcontinent, and also has a long and ongoing history in Europe. The antibacterial attributes of silver have been proven, while it’s perhaps more of a subjective opinion whether gold is an aphrodisiac or not.
The European Union has approved both gold and silver as food foils, as the E175 and E174 additives. These precious metals are inert and considered safe, though some practices associated with their production may be cause for concern.
For example, gold and silver leaf is easier to separate from animal intestines than paper and is not necessarily vegetarian if the production method employs animal sources. The vark produced in India is largely done by machines and without any animal products these days, but one should be aware of the possibility that their gold leaf is not vegetarian/vegan. A 2016 directive to ban the use of animal intestines in the production of silver leaf was halted in 2017 on concern for job losses.
It’s also important to ensure that you are getting your vark from a reputable source, as other metals can be introduced to lessen the need for expensive silver and gold. Finally, purity of the product is a legitimate concern.
Using Gold and Silver Yourself
Today, silver vark leaf is very affordable, and is found on sweets, fruits, and adorning some Ayurvedic medicines. 275 tons (250,000kg) of silver are consumed every year in India.
Like the tradition of Ayurveda itself, the use of edible gold and silver has a long history. Our ancestors from different parts of the world recognized the potential of precious metals, and we continue to recognize their place in history with decorations on our favorite sweets.
Do you like having your food and drinks decorated with precious metals? What about maybe your cosmetics? Let me know what you think!