Whether adorning furniture, jewelry, or royalty itself, gold has served as a status symbol for centuries. With that in mind, is it any surprise modern gourmands have put new meaning to the “putting your money where your mouth is”? Be it gold leaf, gold flakes, or simply gold dust, edible gold has emerged as a leading luxury food additive. Sushi chefs, food truck owners, patissiers, and chocolatiers alike have been captivated by its luster, and the allure has only grown with the advent of photo-loving Instagram foodies. But why do people eat gold? With reasons varying from blood pressure to bonbons, and enthusiasts ranging from Ancient Egyptians to alchemists, covering the history of edible gold makes for something of a full course meal.
The Properties of Edible Gold
The properties of edible gold can fall into two categories; chemical composition and purported health benefits. Chemically inert, gold will not oxidize or corrode unless exposed to specific chemicals. Tasteless and textureless, gold is also conveniently devoid of calories. Utterly unreactive, gold has no nutritional value and no bearing on the digestive system: Gold will simply pass through the stomach. The only time the human body will react to gold consumption is either a stomachache caused by excessive servings of gold or an allergic reaction from those rare few with a gold allergy.
To be safely consumed, gold must fall within the range of 22-karat to 24-karat — even higher than some gold jewelry — and is expected to contain 90% pure gold with 10% additional metals. Since pure gold bars and gold coins are soft enough to knick with a knife, edible gold is often supplemented with 10% pure silver to help bond the metal. However, some gold leaf can contain toxic copper salts rather than body-safe silver. Other preparations, such as gold salts or colloidal gold intended for inedible adornments, can cause harmful side effects and even alter skin pigmentation. As such, edible gold customers need to guarantee the quality of their vendor before consumption. Low-cost gold leaf sold through online vendors has often been found to lack 22 to 24-karat purity or contain dangerous, non-silver additives.
Is Silver Edible Too?
Unlike gold, silver comes in both ionic and non-ionic versions. While non-ionic silver is similarly inert and therefore safe to consume without risk of digestion, ionic silver is a different story. Once activated, ionic silver can be absorbed by the stomach and runs the risk of toxic reactions. Silver leaf — although significantly less popular than edible gold — must therefore be of similar purity and non-ionic.
When it comes to regulations, the FDA offers no explicit guidelines regarding edible gold but lists it as a “Gourmet Food” import. The CDC has declared edible gold safe for consumption, and it’s listed as a certified food additive in the EU. Gold leaf and silver leaf are also gluten-free and certified kosher, should any health-minded hosts wish to spice up their Passover potlucks.
The Powers of Eating Gold
Despite its lack of certified benefits, the purported powers of gold are impressive. Prescribed as a folk-remedy and homeopathic cure-all for centuries, gold is claimed to have cured everything from depression to heart disease. Some Chinese villagers maintain the tradition of cooking meals with a gold coin to replenish their bodies’ minerals, a practice that has since gained modern favor for iron deficiencies. Alchemists of the Middle Ages swore by gold’s anti-inflammatory properties, and surgeons of the 1900s were known to insert small pieces of gold besides swollen joints in a rheumatoid arthritis treatment termed “chrysotherapy”. But while the surgical value of the metal may have grown throughout history, when did peppering food with precious metals become a trend?
The History of Eating Gold
Beginning over 5,000 years ago, Ancient Egyptians in the city of Alexandria are believed to have been the first civilization to consume gold. Claiming it contained purifying properties, they would eat gold to cleanse their body, mind, and spirit. Alexandrian alchemists allegedly created potions of liquid gold that could restore one’s youth and cleanse a body of all illnesses. Gold was further used in jewelry, sarcophagi, and pharaonic masks, such as King Tutankhamun’s. Cleopatra, too, is rumored to have used a face mask of pure gold for the sake of her beauty — a trend that has certainly adapted well to 21st-century tastes, considering the rise of gold-infused skincare.
The purported health benefits of gold continued to grow, as European alchemists of the Middle Ages combined elixirs with gold leaf to reduce pain. Pills filled with gold leaf, as well as gold water tinctures, were sold to soothe aches. The alchemists are believed to have made the first known case studies of arthritis, although their gold-leaf solutions were surely pricier than ibuprofen. Gold-water was popular throughout Europe and, before Goldschläger rose to fame, the city of Gdansk became famous for its Goldwasser liqueur in 1598.
The drink was originally considered a product of alchemy rather than mixology: Despite being touted as a miraculous panacea to cure all ails and grant the drinker immortality, Goldwasser was simply a delicious mix of several herbs, spices, and potent liqueur speckled with gold flakes. Regardless of the reported lack of immortality amongst its customers, Goldwasser soon became a cultural icon of Gdansk and was immensely popular amongst the nobility. Louis XIV was allegedly one of the beverage’s most devoted fans.
For royalty such as Louis XIV, Goldwasser’s value may have been based less on health benefits and more on aesthetics. Kings and queens of the Middle Ages were exceedingly fond of eating gold, silver, and other metals: A 1300’s French cookbook instructs royal chefs on the proper preparations for “Parma Pie,” a dish that requires a glaze of “gold-leaf, silver-leaf, or tin-leaf” for the finishing touch. (Although tin, like gold, is largely inert when consumed, it’s surprisingly failed to gain the modern favor of gold-dusted lattes and bagels alike.)
Pageantry was not just limited to crowns and gowns, as the appearance of food during feasts was of equal importance for medieval royalty. The rest of the recipe for Parma Pie, for instance, calls for tiny flags and banners to be placed on each serving. The trend of show-stopping feasts allowed royal hosts to astonish guests with feats of culinary prowess, flaunt their respective wealth, and eat delicious foods all in one. Compared to modern Instagram food-fads, is it any wonder the edible gold trend has been rekindled by social media?
The Modern Renaissance of Eating Gold
Even before smartphones became omnipresent, edible metal has been enjoying a Renaissance in the food world. Edible gold first rose to modern prominence in the late 90s and recently peaked in 2018, with gourmands generally agreeing upon its origin point: a simple dish of saffron-spiced rice topped with a gold leaf square, introduced to La Terrazza Restaurant in 1981 by Gualtiero Marchesi. Marchesi, now known as an icon of modern Italian cuisine, confessed himself unsurprised by the subsequent trend; "It’s the complete seduction of both the eye and the taste. In cuisine, these two pleasures cannot be separated because everything that is beautiful is also good."
When it comes to making edible gold history Marchesi is closely matched by New York City’s Serendipity 3, home to two of the world’s most infamous desserts. Starting with the Golden Opulence Sundae in 2004, the New York eatery claimed the Guinness World Record for “most expensive dessert” with a price tag of $1,000. Topped with candied fruits, truffles, 23-karat edible gold, and a miniature bowl of caviar, the Golden Opulence Sundae was served in a Baccarat Harcourt gemstone goblet alongside a 14-karat golden spoon.
Despite their success in redefining the world of expensive foods, Serendipity 3 found themselves dissatisfied. In 2007, the cafe released the Frrrozen Haute Chocolate, an ice cream sundae with a $25,000 price tag. Similarly served in a Baccarat Harcourt crystal goblet, the sundae comes with a $14,000 gold and white diamond spoon that one can bring home as a souvenir. The sundae itself is a combination of 28 different cocoas, featuring 14 of the world’s most expensive, and liberally decorated with 23-karat edible gold. The goblet is lined with gold leaf, and an 18-karat diamond bracelet — also meant to be taken home as a sundae souvenir — comes clasped around the base of the dessert.
Although Serendipity 3 also offers a $295 “Le Burger Extravagant” on a gold-dusted roll, Wall Street’s better-known burger would be that of the food truck 666 Burger’s: The Douche Burger. Flaunting a foie gras-stuffed Kobe beef patty topped with lobster, truffle, and caviar, the burger is topped with aged Gruyere melted by champagne steam, a Kopi Luwak coffee bean barbeque sauce, and six sheets of edible gold leaf. The burger retails for $666 and, as it’s creator Franz Aliquo once wrote on Facebook, “It may not taste good, but it will make you feel rich.”
New Yorkers and Their Gold Eating Habits
Perhaps unsurprisingly, New York City is home to a wide variety of gold-topped gastronomy: The Times Square Westin Hotel offered $1,000 gold-flaked bagels in 2017, featuring white truffle cream cheese and Cristal champagne & goji berry-infused jelly. At The Ainsworth, an upscale sports bar concept, you could order fifty 24-karat coated chicken wings created by Kardashian family friend and self-professed “FoodGōd,” Jonathan Cheban, alongside a bottle of Champagne Armand de Brignac for another $1,000. And in the fall of 2017, The Manila Social Club in Brooklyn unveiled their Golden Cristal Ube Doughnut; featuring French choux flavored with purple Phillipino yam, champagne jelly, and Cristal frosting, all liberally coated gold and topped with 24-karat flakes. You could buy a dozen for just over $1,000 and yes, you may be noticing a trend here.
From a $9,000 chocolate bonbon threaded with saffron and coated in gold flakes in Portugal, to a $25,000 taco topped with Beluga caviar and layers of gold in Mexico, increasingly random foods are becoming ever-more gilded. In Dubai’s iconic hotel, the Burj Al Arab, a 27th-floor cocktail lounge aptly titled Gold On 27 uses gold-infused sugar cubes, edible gold-filled pepper mills, and bottles of pure gold coating spray to enhance their menus. When asked why guests would pay for the privilege of consuming a tasteless, odorless, textureless substance, one of the hotel’s food & beverage managers, Etienne Haro, explained “Gold is synonymous with luxury, something which has a level of decadence.” Fortunately for patrons dissatisfied with staying in one of the world’s priciest hotels, the cocktail lounge offers that extra taste of greatness only gold can provide.
When Eating Gold Gets Fancy
In fairness, not every instance of edible gold is excessive to the point of being baroque. Goldschläger, a Swiss brand of cinnamon schnapps, is famous for containing tiny flakes of its titular gold. While each bottle contains a mere 12.9 milligrams of gold per purchase, the gold itself reportedly serves a folkloric purpose; the gold flakes are believed to make minute cuts in the throat and stomach, allowing the alcohol to more quickly enter the bloodstream and intoxicate the drinker.
Beyond such a debatably scientific function, gold has been poignantly used to commemorate and celebrate important moments; before the Golden Cristal Ube donuts were wowing Williamsburg foodies, Japan popularized gold donuts in homage to their 2012 Olympic champions’ medals. Nestlé Japan also launched its limited-edition, gold-foiled $16 Kit Kats to celebrate their store’s one-millionth visitor. And the now-forgotten Serendipity 3’s Golden Opulence Sundae was created to commemorate the store’s 50th anniversary — no small feat, considering New York City’s food industry.
But whether indulgence or reverence is fueling the creation of edible gold goods, the motivations for making such food can be quite different from those eating it. As such, the principal question remains: Why do people eat gold? While gold may not satisfy our appetites, edible metal enthusiasts can be sated in other ways. The creator of the Golden Cristal Ube Doughnut, Björn Delacruz, claims “We eat with our eyes first.” This reasoning is rather well supported, with French-trained Toronto chef, Eron Novalski, once referring to the trend with reverence for “[t]he glistening, the flakes—it’s almost like fire.”
With its aesthetic rather than economic value in mind, the modern rise of metallic cuisine is at once similar and distinct to its Medieval popularity. While the courtly assemblages of lords and ladies were once suitably dazzled by gold-glazed pies, they served as a niche demographic. Wealth disparity reached a critical point in the Middle Ages, and those rare few who could afford to purchase edible metals were typically closely associated with — if not outright related to — the guests who would consume it. Although the hosts could successfully flaunt their wealth, they often did so to guests who were as wealthy as they were; such displays of wealth became a sort of gastronomic, economic echo chamber.
Technology and Eating Gold
Enter Instagram: That great equalizer of all users, but particularly those with time and money to spare. Which, coincidentally, are two very useful things to have if you wish to pursue a regular diet of edible gold. Just as modern minds see royalty as little more than another form of celebrity, Instagram influencers have become a new breed of tastemakers. Quite literally; “Instafood” and “Instabait” are just some of the emerging terms used to describe flaky croissant doughnuts, sparkling mermaid lattés, and, of course, lustrous golden chicken wings.
Photography is often an automatic response to food as calculatingly beautiful and astonishingly expensive as edible gold novelties, which grants diners twofold gifts. The first is the temporary experience of eating the meal, a delicious memory that only lasts as long as the course itself. The second is a permanently preserved record of the food’s visual, fiscal and, once publicly posted, social value. Since a single meal is rather difficult to share with hundreds of thousands of followers from around the world, the photo is what Instagram users ultimately use to broadcast status. And the more gourmands use Instagram to present attractive dishes, the more chefs conspire to create meals that are worth “gramming.”
As Amanda Mull explains in a piece for Eater, such eye-catching meals serve a purpose far beyond nutrition: Photogenic food “transforms an indulgent meal or snack from a physical activity to a status performance.” Mull claims “Consuming Instagram food means acquiring it, and sharing proof of your acquisition,” and, just as pieces of gold are repeatedly hammered into thin sheets of edible foil, “This flattens it out from a sensory experience into an aesthetic one.”
Although gold is still rumored to possess a wide variety of health benefits, the motivation for consuming it seems to have less and less to do with health. In our changing times of image-first sensation, the physical properties of consuming gourmet food are increasingly secondary to its appearance. And what could be more visually arresting, yet flavorless, than gold itself? Ultimately, modern gold consumption serves much the same purpose it did during the Bubonic plague: Demonstrating wealth and taste through a tasteless additive. When it comes to putting your money where your mouth is, Chef Eron Novalski said it best; “It’s gold. It kind of speaks for itself.”