Gold as a Rejuvinator: Myths and Facts
By ERLA ZWINGLE
This sidebar is a supplement to The World’s Greatest Goldbeater
Gold’s supposed health benefits fall into three categories—medicine, cosmetics, and cuisine. Let’s dissect them one by one:
Many excited claims and anecdotes about the cosmetic use of gold leaf gush from beauty websites, echoing the magic word “rejuvenation.” An aesthetician quoted in Harper’s Bazaar explains this phenomenon by saying that “The gold will dissolve on your skin’s surface to instantly reflect light, and tiny particles will seep in to protect against fine lines and discoloration.” Sara Menegazzo, Marino’s daughter, tells me that it makes her skin “more luminous, even rosier. It’s wonderful to do in the winter.”
Could gold be the hidden fountain of youth? “There are not enough studies yet on the cosmetic use of gold,” says dermatologist Robert Anolik, of Dr. Brandt Dermatology Associates in New York. For his part, Dr. Brandon Worley, dermatologist at The Ottawa Hospital (Canada), told me that gold leaf “does not really provide any major skin benefit. It sits on the surface of the skin.” It might feel like it’s doing something simply because the metal reflects light. “Plus, you have taken off the dead skin,” Worley says, “which gives you a glow. Any good facial will do this.” Even the marketing director of a cosmetic company that uses gold admitted in Bazaar that the appeal may be more emotional than scientific. “Women just love seeing gold on their skin.”
In 1929, a French doctor discovered gold did indeed have anti-inflammatory properties; since then gold compounds have been used in drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis. (Studies also have been made on the efficacy of gold to treat or ease the symptoms of cervical cancer, prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s, nerve sensitivity restoration, and aging.)
Gold in suspension was swallowed for various medical problems since the 1500’s when Paracelsus, the “father of toxicology,” pioneered the use of minerals in medicine. By the middle of the 16th century, gold leaf on food became so common in some European countries that it had to be limited to two dishes per meal so as not to exhaust the gold supply.
Radioactive gold particles also have been used in cancer treatment. They are used to apply careful amounts of radiation to targeted areas of cancer treatment. One study found that it could be used on prostate cancer but without the typical side-effects of normal radiation.
While eating gold has recently become trendy in the West, it’s nothing new. In 3,000 B.C. the Egyptians believed that gold was the skin and flesh of the gods, so they consumed it for mental, bodily, and spiritual purification, seeing gold as a gateway to immortality. Gold- or silver-wrapped sweets have been popular in India and Southeast Asia for centuries.
At the height of the Renaissance, European noblemen sought to impress their guests by decorating their food (bread, oysters, quail, carp) with gold leaf at banquets and weddings. In Renaissance Venice, gold-covered, sugared almonds were offered after the meal in the belief that gold strengthened the heart and protected against rheumatism—a belief that later proved to have some merit.
But while gold obviously makes every dish more gorgeous, it can’t make them nutritious. “There appear to be no harmful effects if gold leaf is eaten,” says Mark Grimwade, consultant to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London. “This is not surprising because gold is chemically inert.” Some cultures, and modern enthusiasts, believe that gold can “replenish minerals” in the body, but this is fantastical, as is the so-called “monoatomic gold” marketed as a cure for almost everything. “Edible gold leaf has no taste, texture, calories, or expiration date,” says science journalist L.V. Anderson. “Pure gold passes through the human digestive system without being absorbed into the body. Since 24-karat gold is very soft and fragile, most edible gold—whether leaf, flakes, or dust—also contains a little bit of silver, which is also inert.”
In short, gold clearly feeds the eye more than the body; all the same, the European Union has approved gold and silver leaf as “food additives” (code E 174 and E 175). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. only certifies them as non-toxic. They are also kosher.