Ingestion of Inedible Cake Decorating Dust Associated with Heavy Metal Poisoning in Children (A Public Health Concern in the Fall of 2021)

November 24, 2021

Paustenbach and Asssociates

On October 29, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released a report discussing two investigations conducted between 2018 – 2019 of metal poisoning in several children in Rhode Island and Missouri, associated with ingestion of “luster dusts” on home and commercially prepared cakes. Luster dust is a term used to describe a family of cake decorating powders and glitters made to give desserts a pearlescent sheen (Viveiros et al., 2021).

In October 2018, the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) received reports of six children becoming ill after attending a birthday party. The investigation determined that the birthday cake was the only food item consumed by all the children. An outbreak investigation implicated the cake frosting, which was made with a combination of frosting and “gold dust”, also known as luster dust. It was discovered that the luster dust was labeled as “nonedible,” “nontoxic,” and “for decoration only.” Laboratory analysis revealed that this rose gold dust contained 22.1 mg of copper per gram of frosting; this came out to a total of almost 900 mg of copper for a single cake slice. Further analysis of other luster dusts at the bakery found “elevated levels” of other heavy metals as well. 

During the investigation, the RIDOH Center for Food Protection traced a possible source of the gold dust to a manufacturer that initially sold the powder for use as a metallic pigment in consumer products such as floor coverings (Viveiros et al., 2021). In May 2019, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) identified elevated blood lead levels in a one-year-old child. An investigation of the child’s home detected lead in a jar of bright yellow “primrose petal dust,” which had been used to decorate the child’s home-baked birthday cake. This luster dust was labeled as “nontoxic,” and was sold by a Florida-based cake decorating company that marketed the product as a nontoxic color for baked goods, candies, chocolate, and “sugar art” (Viveiros et al., 2021).

Many luster dusts are considered safe for human consumption and are typically marked “edible.” These products are required by federal law to include a list of ingredients on their labels. Some luster dusts, on the other hand, are not edible, and these products are often labeled as “nontoxic” or “for decorative purposes only.” By federal regulation under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, food additives must meet certain safety and labeling guidelines, and a 2018 FDA advisory indicated that luster dust products should only be consumed if labeled as “edible” and contain a list of ingredients. Decorative accents for food should not be assumed to be edible simply because they are labeled as “nontoxic” (FDA, 2018, 2021).

We understand that personal injury litigation alleging harm in children due to the excessive ingestion of metals due to these food products (some intended for human consumption and some not) may occur. Some of the products are alleged to have been brought to the U.S. via import due to the lower cost. Not surprisingly, low doses of certain metals such as copper, zinc, and iron are essential for human survival, but the same metals can cause toxicity at high doses (Tsao et al., 2020). Other metals, such as cadmium, lead, and thallium, serve no biological benefit and can produce adverse effects in specific organs at high doses. These metals are found naturally in the environment and, as a result, will often be measurable in the blood of both adults and children, but the blood concentration must achieve certain concentrations to pose a health risk (Fisher and Gupta, 2021). 

To understand the magnitude of the associated risk, if any, a quantitative assessment needs to be conducted. Paustenbach and Associates scientists have extensive experience in performing safety assessments as well as assessing foods, beverages and consumer products containing lead, cadmium, cobalt, arsenic, chromium, and related metals (Keenan et al., 2010; Paustenbach et al., 2013; Kerger et al., 2015; Madl et al., 2015; Madl et al., 2015; Tvermoes et al., 2015; Monnot et al., 2016; Paustenbach et al., 2016; Fung et al., 2018). Please contact us if you are faced with these challenges for a no-cost screening assessment.



FDA (2018). FDA Advises Home and Commercial Bakers to Avoid Use of Non-Edible Food Decorative Products, U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

FDA (2021). To Eat or Not to Eat: Decorative Products on Foods Can Be Unsafe, U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Fisher, R. M. and V. Gupta (2021). Heavy Metals. StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL), StatPearls Publishing

Copyright © 2021, StatPearls Publishing LLC.

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Viveiros, B., G. Caron, J. Barkley, E. Philo, S. Odom, J. Wenzel, M. Buxton, E. Semkiw, A. Schaffer, L. Brown and A. S. Ettinger (2021). “Cake Decorating Luster Dust Associated with Toxic Metal Poisonings – Rhode Island and Missouri, 2018-2019.” MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 70(43): 1501-1504.