Wait! Don't eat Aunt Vertie's sugar cookies, no matter how tasty they look! Better you should rub them on your aching back.
Wintergreen oil, an ingredient in Ben-Gay and other muscle-pain ointments, turned up in a recipe in the July issue of Gourmet magazine.
Now the editors of the venerable magazine have found themselves in the unique, and unenviable, position of mailing 750,000 retraction letters, complete with a handy revised-recipe sticker to paste over the first recipe in the "Helen Gustafson's Sugar Cookies" article on page 88. The envelopes read "IMPORTANT: Please Open Immediately."
Wintergreen oil is used as a topical analgesic and is not generally meant for internal consumption.
"Frequent and large doses of the oil can cause death from stomach inflammations," said Ara Der Marderosian, professor of pharmacognosy and medicinal chemistry at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacology and Science. "There have been cases of kids being poisoned by it. It generally causes ringing of the ears, nausea and vomiting. A small amount like this most likely wouldn't hurt anyone, but it's possible that someone might increase the amount or put too much in mistakenly, so there is a potential for hazard."
Originally, the recipe had called for 1/4 teaspoon of wintergreen "extract," "but that seemed to be only available in some Midwestern states," says Gourmet spokeswoman Melissa Small. "The recipe was tested here at the magazine -- as all our recipes are -- with a bottle of wintergreen oil that did not include a warning label." The editors were alerted to the oil's toxic qualities after a reader wrote that she had purchased a bottle with a label cautioning against swallowing.
The new Aunt Vertie's sugar cookies recipe calls for " 1/4 teaspoon of wintergreen extract (available at some supermarkets) or almond extract or 1 teaspoon vanilla." The original referred to " 1/4 teaspoon wintergreen oil (available at some pharmacies)."
Though Gourmet has published corrections in its 50-year-history, according to Ms. Small this is the first time that a retraction letter has been mailed to every subscriber.