Gingerbread item actually nonedible

THE TRUTH ABOUT SILVER BALLS

January 06, 1993|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

Silver balls: lovely to look at but not to eat.

That's the culinary puzzle behind the BB-size decorations known as silver dragees, which have brightened the eyes of gingerbread men for years -- and have been eaten at countless holiday parties.

But dragees (pronounced drah-ZHAYS) actually are nonedible, because they contain small amounts of silver.

Packages of the dragees note that they are nonedible and should be used only for decoration -- meaning that you should pick off the balls before biting into cookies and cakes.

But that warning hasn't satisfied state officials in California and Colorado, who have pressured distributors -- including Sparks-based McCormick & Co. Inc. -- to pull dragees from grocery shelves.

Most ingredients of the balls -- which include cornstarch, gelatin and acetic acid -- cause no concern. But the dragees' small amount of silver, which provides color and luster, has set off alarms.

Each dragee contains 23 parts of silver per million -- the equivalen of 23 tissues in a stack of tissues about the height of the Empire State Building, said Allen M. Barrett Jr., a spokesman for McCormick. The spice-and-flavoring company sells the decorations under the Cake Mate brand.

In early 1991, McCormick and the two other dragee distributors -- Specialty Brands of San Francisco and Pioneer Products Inc. of Ocala, Fla. -- pulled these silver balls from California grocery shelves after state officials sued the companies because the silver content exceeded permissible state levels. Last month, the companies, under pressure from Colorado officials, agreed to stop selling there.

In the wake of the California action, McCormick and the other companies changed the labels of the dragees to more plainly show that they were not meant to be eaten. The words "nonedible" and "Use only as a decoration" now appear on labels; previously, the labels did not include the word "nonedible."

Still, you are more likely to break a tooth on the rock-like balls than to be poisoned.

Dragees are listed on a national poison reference as being nontoxic and should trigger no harmful effects -- unless eaten in huge amounts, said Dr. Carla M. Goetz, assistant director of the Maryland Poison Center. "If one or two of these are eaten, there should be no problem."

One last note: McCormick, which sells about $500,000 in dragees annually, is working on a substitute for the silver. It hopes to begin selling edible dragees by the 1993 holiday season.

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