What would happen if the Tide Pod-eaters and the unicorn Frappuccino-obsessed conspired to make the next big Instagram food? They'd probably come up with glitter food: the bizarre, but kind of beautiful, trend that's exploding right now. From glitter lattés to glitter galaxy bagels, glitter churros, rose gold glitter prosecco, glitter gum, and even rainbow glitter pizza, people are sprinkling their meals with actual glitter in order to make it look more appealing on Instagram.
As the shimmering food fad takes off, though, skeptics want to know whether or not it's actually safe to eat glitter. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement in response to the trend, urging people to only use glitter that's specifically marked as "edible." Most edible glitter is made from sugar, cornstarch, and pearlescent color additives, and is totally safe to eat. But, if the glitter container says "for decorative purposes only" or even "nontoxic," that's a different story.
"Glitter isn't food," says Andrew Stolbach, MD, MPH, medical toxicologist and associate professor of emergency medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Most nontoxic glitter is made up of very small pieces of plastic. And while plastic may not be a "toxic" substance, it's not meant to be eaten, either. There's no telling what exactly is on the glitter, and in some cases it could contain trace metals or other dangerous substances that could lead to long-term health issues, Dr. Stolbach says.
When a product says it's "nontoxic," that just means that the ingredients are not expected to immediately cause symptoms or be dangerous, according to the National Capital Poison Center. However, that doesn't mean that it's something you should be eating, and it can still be risky — for example, the silica gels that come in most packages are technically "nontoxic," but they're not intended to be snacked on. And because glitter is so light and abundant, you could end up accidentally inhaling the pieces, Dr. Stolbach says. "It can get into your lungs and cause some lung irritation, coughing, shortness of breath, that kind of thing," he says.
The FDA is very strict about proper glitter protocol, and according to the federal agency's statement, it's commercial bakers' responsibility as food manufacturers to follow the FDA's rules. So, in theory you should be safe if you order a glittery food product from a restaurant or store, because it should be made with edible glitter.
But, say you ate a treat that was made with the non-edible, nontoxic glitter, like these "decorative" glitter pills on Etsy (why?). What would happen to your body then?
Truth is, "it'll probably just go straight through you," Dr. Stolbach says. Meaning: You will poop out the glitter. Dr. Stolbach says he sees people (oftentimes kids) accidentally eating all kinds of non-food items, and usually they are okay, though he was surprised that grown adults are now eating glitter on purpose. FWIW, some people who ate the aforementioned glitter pills also claimed that the glitter just ended up in their bowels, and they didn't experience any other symptoms.
But, in case we didn't make this abundantly clear: This does not mean that you should eat craft glitter. "Definitely wouldn't recommend intentionally eating glitter," Dr. Stolbach says. If you do happen to ingest craft glitter, and you feel fine, then there's no need to seek medical attention, he says. However, if you inhaled the glitter and you're feeling any weird symptoms, or if you're not sure if the glitter you ate was nontoxic, then call a doctor.
The most important thing to remember while this glitter food trend blows up is that just because food looks cool on Instagram, doesn't necessarily mean that it's safe to eat. If the Tide Pod challenge taught us anything, it's that these viral moments can be really dangerous. And hey, if you absolutely cannot resist seeing your food sparkle, might we suggest you try using the KiraKira app?