Edible gold leaf has been captivating chefs and food enthusiasts for centuries. This shimmering, metallic sheet has the power to transform plates of food into works of art. It certainly isn’t new, but if you’ve heard about Salt Bae’s gilded steaks or the $1,000 gold sundae, you know that every few years another gold-crusted menu item creates widespread hype and incredulous conversation.
As a skeptic (and lover of shiny things), the concept of a decorative, edible metal has always baffled me. What’s so special about it? What is gold leaf actually made out of? Is it real gold? And if it is real gold, why can we eat it?
I was determined to get definitive answers on gold leaf’s composition, safety, and culinary possibilities, so I spoke with industry experts.
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Is Gold Leaf Real Gold?
The very notion of consuming gold might sound extravagant and otherworldly, but edible gold leaf is indeed real gold.
These gossamer-thin sheets, often referred to as “edible gold,” tend to be made of at least 90% real gold. So what is the other 10%?
All four agreed that generally speaking, edible gold is 22K to 24K and that aside from pure 24K sheets, it usually also contains silver for structure.
Soo explained the gold is, “alloyed with silver for enhanced workability. Pure gold is incredibly soft, which can result in significant wastage on the application level due to its challenging handling. Silver alleviates this issue.”
But when it came to whether or not gold leaf contains copper—a similarly sturdy metal to silver but dangerous when consumed in large amounts—the group’s answers varied slightly.
When I asked Martinez about gold leaf composition, he stated that gold leaf can contain small amounts of copper in addition to silver. Reindl, who is a food scientist by trade, said she knows this happens, but emphasized her product is copper-free.
Both Gavin and Soo insisted that while genuine gold and silver are safe for consumption, copper is not, and edible gold leaf should never contain it.
It became clear that formulations vary by manufacturer. Gold leaf is not regulated or evaluated by the FDA and as of 2023, the FDA does not have a standard for how high the gold percentage in gold leaf should be. (They do, however, advise consumers about what to look for when buying edible glitter.)
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Why Is Gold Safe to Eat?
Frankly speaking, the reason we can eat gold is because it is considered biologically inert, meaning it doesn’t react during digestion. It isn’t absorbed or digested by our bodies—it basically takes a harmless tour through our system and exits.
Gavin of Slofoodgroup said that while the FDA may not have specific standards, the World Health Organization does have a classification. “Gold is considered a food additive classified as E175 by Codex Alimentarius standards, which includes both the EU and US among members.”
Though Greg in the TV show Succession may have claimed too much gold leaf gave him a stomachache, Martinez insisted, “There has been no record of anyone ever getting sick from eating too much gold leaf. Especially because you are eating so, so little of it at a time. But more so because our bodies do not react to it!”
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How Is Gold Leaf Made?
Gold leaf has a rich and ancient history of production, with civilizations across Europe and Asia manually flattening gold with big hammers thousands of years ago. The process was called “goldbeating.”
Today, while the basic mechanics of production remain similar, the process has evolved. “There are very few people who still manufacture it by hand, and it is a dying art,” said Reindl.
The 4 Steps of Modern Gold Leaf Production
1. The process starts with smelting down solid gold (often with other metals to create an alloy below 24K).
2. The smelted gold is poured to form a gold bar. This bar is then milled by rolling it between two rollers, producing a thin gold tape.
3. In a process reminiscent of ancient times, the gold tape is placed between sheets of paper. The paper is then subjected to the beating process, where a mechanical hammer continuously strikes to thin the tape into gold leaf.
4. After beating, the gold leaf is manually separated from the form, cut into squares, and compiled into booklets for sale.
Where and How to Buy Gold Leaf
Gold leaf is found most easily online from reputable sources. It typically comes in booklets of 25 sheets and ranges from $49 to $100 per book. Everyone I spoke with said to never buy gold leaf for food purposes that is below 22K.
Martinez and Reindl both insisted that it is incredibly important to not purchase imitation gold leaf. This is often sold at crafting stores and though it may look like edible gold leaf, it isn’t.
“Imitation leaf is made with more stable metals like copper or bronze, and they are not food grade. Edible quality will have the description of the carat so you should really only be looking for packages that say 23K, 23.5K or 24K,” said Reindl.
Gold leaf comes in both “loose” and “transfer”—the difference is that transfer gold leaf is placed on a wax paper-like sheet of “transfer paper” that is easier to manipulate, especially for novice gold leaf users.
Uses and Tips for Home Cooks
Buying gold leaf for home use may seem gratuitous, but Gold Leaf Company owner Steve Martinez says there are lots of ways that home cooks can use just a little bit to add a lot of pizazz to special occasions.
Whether it’s for New Years, the holidays, an engagement party, wedding, birthday, or any other cause for celebration, here’s how the experts suggested using edible gold leaf:
- Top cakes and cupcakes: Apply it while the frosting is fresh or you may have trouble getting the gold to stick. Use a small (clean!) artist brush, break the gold off from the sheet, and neatly press it onto the frosting. You can also use chopsticks to transfer and drape the gold leaf over your baked good. Whatever tool you use, take your time and be careful. “When you open a book of loose gold leaf, if you breathe on it wrong it can blow away,” warned Martinez.
- Make sprinkles to brush onto cookies or harder desserts: To make sprinkles, take 1 to 2 sheets, break them up with a fork or chopsticks in a metal or glass bowl (they will stick to plastic), then get a spoon and sprinkle the pieces on like literal fairy dust. You can always store extra in a glass container and it will last for at least a year.
- Add flakes to champagne, prosecco, or wine: There is no need to buy Goldschläger or gold-infused wine when you can add gold to any of your favorite drinks. Though the flakes can really be added to any alcohol, make sure it is light-colored so the gold is visible.
- Coat cake pops, truffles, or lollipops: Float a sheet of gold leaf on top of a bowl of water or alcohol and gently press your item down through the middle to encase it in gold.
And remember, a little goes a long way!
According to Reindl, “One gram of edible gold flakes will last a regular pastry chef an entire holiday season or 6 months.”
Though I still wondered if we should be ingesting gold (especially because it is finite), Reindl alleviated my curiosity by offering some perspective.
She imparted, “1 ounce of gold can produce 9 square meters of gold leaf. So once you see what a little bit can do, you only need a teeny, tiny bit. You aren’t going to coat an entire buffet table.”