On this particular occasion, I offered my older son a piece of sweet. He held it in his hand for several minutes, turning it around, eyeing it suspiciously from various angles, and, eventually sniffing at it. Then he asked me a question that, in retrospect, I should have taken more trouble to answer: “Mom, can I eat the paper?” He was referring, of course, to the silver foil that barfis are generally covered in. “Of course,” I said. “It is not paper, it is silver, and it is perfectly edible.”
On what basis did I make that assertion? I made it simply because I had been eating barfis covered with silver foil all of my life. If they hadn’t killed me by now, they must be okay, right?
Barfis are delicacies made from khava, a milk product resembling ricotta cheese. Khava is never eaten by itself, but used as an ingredient in various North Indian desserts. Milk is boiled in large clay vats for hours to produce the creamy, soft, and crumbly khava, rich in proteins and fat. In India, you can purchase khava from a mithaivala—a sweet vendor—to make confections with, or you can buy readymade sweets made out of khava. The most popular sweet with khava as an ingredient is barfi, which comes in many flavors: pistachio, chocolate, mango, coconut, cashew, almond, each with its unique color—green for pistachio, orange for mango, brown for chocolate, white for coconut. The distinctive characteristic of barfi is that it is always covered in varakh, or silver foil, which, apart from its decorative aspect, lends the sweet a cool, metallic taste.
Since that first exposure to barfi, our visits to Vik’s became a ritual. Over the next decade, we would eat chaat (spicy street food) at Vik’s, then pick up boxes of sweets to take home. Alas, most of the time, the sweets would be eaten up by my growing boys even before we had arrived home.
But every time my son picked up a piece of barfi, he never failed to ask the question, “Mom, can I eat the paper?” Perhaps his query was an ongoing joke. Perhaps it was a result of the strictly hygienic upbringing he had had in California.
Or perhaps, his query was based on an instinctive understanding of the risk of eating silver.
Alas, so steeped in nostalgia was silver foil for me, that I never gave his question a second thought. I distinctly remembered the first time my father brought barfi home. Unlike other groceries, which consisted of broken bits wrapped in old newspaper, the barfi came in neat silver-coated rectangles arranged in a colorful cardboard box embossed in gold with the words, “Haldiram Sweets, Nagpur.” I remembered my first taste of cardamom, nutmeg, sugar, and cream mixed with khava.
So, over the next decade or so, every time my son asked me the question, I laughed it off.
I continued to laugh at my son’s question until 2003,when I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a lawsuit brought by a Napa attorney against several prestigious corporations including Martha Stewart Omnimedia, Indian Tree, and Dean and DeLuca. The lawsuit charged the companies with contaminating cakes with dragees—little decorative balls—made from silver. The suit claimed that silver was a toxic substance that caused harm to humans, particularly children.
According to a 1992 report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Office of Prevention, Pesticides, and Toxic Substances, silver can be harmful to humans if eaten in more than a miniscule amount. The report said that if more than .005mg/kg are consumed per day, silver can cause lung and throat lesions, and can spark infections and abdominal pain. It can also turn the skin gray-blue or black in a condition called argyria. It is often difficult for people to know how much silver they can have in their bodies, because it’s a so-called bio-accumulative metal. Once consumed, silver lodges in body fat or the nervous system for life. So, if a child swallowed silver foil, the amount of silver in the decoration would stay in the body, building up to potentially more toxic levels with any other silver the person knowingly or unknowingly consumed throughout lifetime, including dietary silver that is naturally consumed through natural foods.
The suit was eventually settled by the defendants who agreed not to sell silver dragees for cake decorations in California.
The article alarmed me. But I must confess that even then I did not stop buying barfi for my children. Nor did the lawsuit result in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banning silver foil from Indian sweets.
But, since then, at the back of my mind remained a nagging suspicion that something was not quite right with my children eating large quantities of sweets covered in silver foil. So I recently undertook a research project to discover what the scientific community knew about the subject. My findings were less than satisfactory.
There seem to be conflicting reports about the safety of the consumption of silver, which is used in alternative medicinal products called silver colloids. The EPA found that colloids containing silver particles the size of .0003 to .05 microns in diameter, if consumed below the threshold levels mentioned above, were not carcinogenic, but could result in argyria. The EPA qualified its study by saying that the body may react differently to silver in other forms. It was not clear, therefore, if the conclusions applied to silver foil. There have in fact been no studies made on the amounts of silver contained in silver foil, and the cumulative amounts that could safely be ingested over a lifetime of eating sweets.
It turns out that the silver in silver foil is not the only danger that consumers face. Even though the silver foil is microscopically thin, silver is a precious metal and can be expensive to use. So aluminum is substituted for silver in many cases, causing even more harm. There are reports that the silver foil can also be contaminated with lead, which is known to cause brain damage in children.
And yet, many Indian travel websites tout betel leaf and sweets covered with silver foil as a special attraction for Western tourists traveling to the holy city of Varanasi and other locations. Haldiram’s U.S. agent boasts of sweets covered with silver leaf on its website.
The use of silver foil in food in India goes back thousands of years, it is claimed; in fact, India converts 13 British tons of pure silver into edible foil every year.
Ironically, my search of the FDA website uncovered reports of “Food Alerts” the FDA regularly issues for imported foods randomly checked and found to be contaminated by adulterants and harmful substances. There were several alerts issued regarding betel leaf and sweets covered with silver foil imported from New Delhi, Pune, and Chennai. Some even referred to meetha paan, or spiced betel leaf, a mouth freshener, imported from Haldiram Sweets, my own hometown’s success story, which has gone from a hole-in-the-wall shop in Nagpur to a multimillion-dollar international franchise. Even more confusing is the fact that in some FDA alerts, the silver foil is referred to as “Permitted,” in others, it is labeled, “Not permitted,” thickening the mystery.
The trouble with the FDA’s reporting system is that it is anything but reporting; for the FDA doesn’t seem to have a way of getting the information regarding contaminated or possibly toxic and harmful imports out to the communities most affected by them. Nor does the FDA conduct any significant campaigns to publicize the alerts it issues.
And what about the sweets that are manufactured in the United States and covered with silver foil? There seems to be currently little information regarding the advisability or otherwise of ingesting such sweets in large quantities as my children have done throughout their childhoods.
The lawsuit, I discovered, has given rise to a large controversy among bloggers and other web correspondents regarding the use of silver foil in food, even prompting a spoof in which silver foil has become a sort of an urban legend, akin to UFOs and stolen human organs.
Recently, other controversies have emerged in connection with silver foil. One news report claimed that the consumption of varakh is sacrilegious to vegetarians and Hindus because the intestines of oxen and other cattle are used in its manufacture. The report alleged that intestines of animals are pulled out of the carcasses and handed over to the manufacturers of varakh who wash them out for blood and other animal remains before binding them into pages like a notebook. A sliver block is then placed in the middle of these bound intestines, it is reported, which are sealed. The leather bag is pounded with wooden sticks, until the bag is flattened out, creating a very fine film of silver. The silver foil thus created is separated from the intestine pack and shipped to consumers who unsuspectingly eat the minute quantities of beef, blood, and other impurities attached to its surface. Apparently, a television show titled Heads and Tails, hosted by Maneka Gandhi, recently broadcast the story, creating a scandal among Indians at home and abroad.
Other contradictions surround the issue of edible silver. Even though the FDA alerts often refer to silver foil on Indian sweets, the EPA website classifies silver balls or dragees as “Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS),” which simply means that laboratory studies on rats have not yet been conducted to determine that the substance is carcinogenic.
In the meantime, Indian stores in California continue to sell sweets coated with silver foil, and silver dragees are available for anyone in California to purchase over the Internet, the Napa lawsuit and the resulting ban notwithstanding.
Where does this leave the Indian-American consumer with regard to the consumption of delicious barfis? It seems there are more questions than answers at this point. Is ingesting silver in a liquid suspension form the same as consuming it in a solid film in large quantities? Does the body treat the two forms differently? Why has the EPA only considered silver colloids and not silver foil and dragees in its disclaimers? Why has the U.S. Customs seized imported silver foil-coated sweets if those made in America have no restrictions placed on them? And what is the consumer to do in the meantime with regard to the consumption of these delicacies?
It seems that more awareness and research is needed to address this health issue.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.