Silver and Gold Leaf / Varkh

In response to BWC’s campaign, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) via a Notification declared that after 1 August 2017 Silver Leaf or Chandi-ka-warq "shall not be manufactured using any material of animal origin at any stage". For decades BWC investigated, created a public awareness, and approached the Government of India to declare that Varkh must be machine-made, without using animal skin. Those who would like to know the background will find the information below of interest.

Traditional manufacturers had obtained a stay on the Notification, but upon it being vacated the FSSAI on 9 November 2018 issued an order asking all State Commissioners of Food & Drug Administrations to ensure that the varkh used is food grade and not made with material of animal origin.

In 2019 BWC felt it was necessary to find out if the law was being upheld or not so we investigated. Some members checked with mithai makers in a few cities and were all informed citing the ban that the silver varkh used by them was machine made. But when suppliers were contacted some among them were unable to indicate the source from which they were obtaining the varkh, and although they didn’t know the method of production they had gone ahead and affixed the green veg symbol on the boxes in which they had packed the varkh they had obtained in bulk.

Meanwhile further investigations in Jaipur and Bhopal revealed that the old method that utilises the guts of ox, sheep and goats is very much in practice for over 90% of the total estimated varkh market of approximately 300 tons of silver varkh consumption in India. Hand made varkh between animal skin is cheaper than machine-made varkh because no more than 50% of machine-made varkh turns out satisfactory (what is unacceptable is sold off as ingredients to manufacturers of qiwam, zafrani, zarda, paan chatni, coating for beetle nuts and mouth fresheners) whereas if varkh is made between leather as much as 95% is usable.

This page has been kept as it was prior to the ban being declared.

Silver beaten between ox-gut or sheep/goat epidermises cannot be vegetarian.

Varkh/Silver leaf/Chandi-ka-warq/Tabaq (silver or even gold edible foil used as decoration on mithai, paan, supari, chyavanprash, mukhwaas, fruit like apples often eaten with skins, found floating in bottles like those of kesar syrup and in some Ayurvedic formulations) is made by placing small thin metal strips between ox-gut skin or jhilli/epidermis (layer immediately beneath the skin) of sheep/goat measuring 7 x 9 inches, bound together into a booklet/auzaar up to 360 pages and put into a loose calf-leather/sheep suede pouch/thadaa/khol. The leather and epidermis (20-25 ‘pages’ of the booklet/auzaar are cut from one sheep/goat epidermis) being malleable stand intense manual hammering by the varkhsaaz/tabaqgaar/pannigaar for up to 8 hours till such time as the 1 inch silver/metal strips kept in between become extremely thin, thus producing the required foil which is carefully transferred between special papers for marketing.

It is estimated that the varkh consumed on mithai alone by an average Indian middle class family during their life time would represent the use of ox-guts (intestines) from nearly 3 cows or bulls plus calf-leather comprising of one-tenth of a medium sized animal.

If sheep/goat epidermises/jhilli is used, 15 of them go into the making of 1 booklet/auzaar which yields 200 varkh bundles which would be 150-160 varkh sheets or 176 sq cm 12,500 animal epidermises are used for producing 1 kg of varkh. The demand in India is for 2.5 crore booklets per year which equals 37.5 crore animals. These booklets are made in Agra and no where else in India: the special knife used by the pannigaars to separate the sheep/goat epidermises/jhilli is called a raapi. (And the hair that is removed from the raw hides goes into making kambals/blankets and other woollen products which proves that not all wool is obtained through shearing.)

Say no to Varkh

In the early 1980s Beauty Without Cruelty was successful in convincing the Indian Airlines to stop serving their passengers varkh coated mithai.

Some laboratory tests have found that the chandi-ka-warq they tested contained no chandi but was made of pure aluminium! (Consumption of aluminium is considered a health hazard.) In 2014 a sweet shop owner was sentenced to 3 years in jail for using aluminium foil (considered adulteration) to decorate sweets.


By 2013 several brands of sliver leaf/varkh/chandi-ka-warq that did not utilise animal skin in their production were available – they were machine-made and therefore did not utilise epidermis/jhilli booklets as stated above. Some affixed the green veg square with dot symbol on their packets. However, just like for all other packaged foods that carry this veg symbol (remember it is self certification) BWC can not be absolutely certain that the varkh has been manufactured without the use of any animal products.

We would like to emphatically point out that once varkh is applied on the mithai and displayed for sale, there is no way of knowing whether veg or non-veg or ascertaining the brand utilised. It is but obvious that in order to sell the mithai the salesman in the sweetmeat shop is bound to say the varkh utilised is veg even if he doesn’t know.

It is therefore best to avoid consuming all products – not only mithai – that contain varkh.

Gold Varkh

BWC has witnessed the making of gold varkh (could contain a percentage of copper) made in the traditional way in-between malleable animal skin, no different to making silver varkh. The following day the gold leaves were carefully removed and placed on to a metal base (on which mercury could have been applied) which was then set with the help of a gas fire gun to produce a gold plated kalash to be used in a temple.

India is not the only country in the world to produce metal leaf/varkh. The gold/metal leaf industry is important to the Burmese because they use it for gilding. Even today in Germany and Japan small specialised enterprises produce gold leaf for decorative, technical and culinary purposes by manual methods. Packed in layers of ox-gut/goldbeater’s skin, the gold is beaten until it is 100 nanometres or 0.0001 mm thick; 1 sq metre corresponds to 0.1 cubic centimetre or just 2 grams of gold.

Goldbeater’s skin is ox-gut/calf-gut or the outer membrane of intestines of cattle – a parchment used in the process of reducing gold into thin leaves. “Free” import of this is allowed under India’s Import Policy 2012 for production of silver varkh and other metal leaves.

Goldbeater’s skin is obtained from the gut of slaughtered oxen or other cattle, is soaked in a dilute solution of potassium hydroxide, washed, stretched, beaten flat and thin, and treated chemically to prevent putrefaction. A pack of 1,000 pieces of goldbeater’s skin requires the gut of about 400 oxen, but is only 1 inch thick. Up to 120 ‘sheets’ of this skin with gold sandwiched in-between are beaten at the same time since the skin is thin, elastic and does not tear under heavy hammering. The beating is done by hand with a special 8 kg heavy hammer for an hour, striking up to 70 strokes a minute. Before final packing, it is again beaten between skins which have been coated with gypsum powder to prevent the gold leaf from sticking to the skins. The gold leaf is beaten till it is thin enough to be able to see through it when held up against the light. It is then taken out of the leather ‘mold’, cut and packaged in tissue-paper books containing 25 leaves each.

It’s said that Italian royalty has being using gold leaf, flakes, shavings or dust for as long as India has been coating mithai with silver varkh. For example, in Milan’s Dolce & Gabbana’s restaurant called Gold, their signature chocolate dessert is shaped like a bar of gold and covered with gold leaf. In fact, gold leaf in all its forms like sprinkles, glitter and stars, have worked their way into world cuisine, e.g. chocolates, lollipops, cigars, soups, sauces, pizzas, spreads, marmalade, truffles, seafood, schnitzels, fresh/dried fruit and cocktails.

Considered the latest in luxury, high-end restaurants here too have begun decorating food (like lobsters, meats, rice and desserts, even dosas) and drinks (as in Japanese gold sake) with food-grade edible gold. Although the price of 10 grams of edible gold around Diwali 2011 was $500, it was reported to have been used by certain restaurants in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata. Since then every Diwali and Christmas chocolates with gold dust on them are sold at exorbitant rates in many cities of India. In 2014 London’s publicity-hungry, attention-seeking chefs began using gold leaf and flecks. One of the creations consisted of a hamburger with a £1,100 price tag. And, gold-dusted macaroons and ice cream became a fad.

Unfortunately the Times of India featured foods covered with gold foil (who knows whether it was made between ox gut or not) in their Diwali 2020 edition. In Surat on the occasion of chandi padvo a gold version of ghari was produced by a sweet shop and sold at Rs 9000/- per kilogram was mentioned in addition to a gold coated dosa in Bengaluru costing Rs 1,011/- and a murg kebab of Mumbai priced at Rs 415/-.

Liquors containing bits of gold leaf have been in existence in Europe since the late 16th century. A well-known example is Danziger Goldwasser, originally from Gdańsk, Poland. However, in America, floating bits of gold leaf in liquors is quite recent, e.g. Goldschläger which is cinnamon flavoured and contains gold leaf (varkh) floating in the clear liqueur. Gold flakes are also found in Schwabacher Goldwasser and Gold Strike. A sparkling wine from Spain contains it, as does Kiwi Gold which is a New Zealand wine made with gold flakes. (The ingredient code for gold is E175.)

Gold leaf is sometimes used in fruit jelly snacks. It was also used in coffee in Japan. In Kanazawa, where Japan's gold leaf production is centred, gold leaf shops and workshops sell green tea and hard candy with gold leaf within. In 2017 an eatery in Tokyo also served sushi tilled with over a dozen different types of seafood for $96. (It was copied in Mumbai using 24K gold dust on dimsums.)

The US Food & Drug Administration considers the metallic-finish foods inedible and in Australia silver food additives classed as colouring E174 is banned. Despite this gold covered hotdogs, bagels, burgers pizza, desserts, etc are sold in New York City.

Apart from the fact that edible 23K or 24K gold or silver leaf, sheets flakes or dust is more likely than not to be made between ox-gut, it has no taste, is of nil nutritional value and is not even digested. So then why do people go for such glitter on food? One would image it is snob value or more money than brains; and last but not least, no sensitivity since ox-gut is almost certainly utilized in manufacture.

Page last updated on 13/11/20