Varakh/Silver foils used in Indian sweet delicacies and others are not vegetarian. They are made by a process that uses animal intestines.
Hoax or Fact:
Mixture of hoax and facts.
This is a message in circulation for many years. It says that Varakh, i.e. Silver Foil widely used for garnishing in Indian & South Asian cuisines, especially sweet delicacies, is not vegetarian - it is made by a process that uses animal intestines. Today, we will analyze and get into these facts.
Vark, varq, Varak or Varakh is a thin delicate malleable foil of very pure silver that is used for garnishing sweets. It is also used as an ingredient in various ayurvedic & herbal products, summer drinks & Chyawanprash etc.
Though flavorless, the silver foil varakh is edible, and the manufacturing companies state various benefits of its use. The precious silver reflects back 95% of the light energy that falls on it, and keeps the food item free from bacterial infections. The silver leaves are also said to have a number of health benefits like stimulating natural immunity, toning up the body, fighting allergies and rapid healing of ailments.
Vegetarian lobbyists have been claiming that varak is made by hammering silver metal block between animal fat (intestine) or hide and is therefore a non-vegetarian product. They point that the silver-topped sweets are even served as prasad in many temples and on auspicious & religious occasions. There are also concerns that the large consumption of silver foil causes the slaughter of ox, cow, sheep, goat and other animals on a very large scale.
It is because of these concerns, in the early 1980s, the animal rights group 'Beauty Without Cruelty' convinced the Indian Airlines to stop serving their passengers varakh coated sweets. The animal intestines are used because of their elasticity, as they do not get cut even after a severe pounding.
The video (described in Hindi, with English subtitles) shot in Hyderabad in 2013 at a Varak workshop shows how it is made. The workers cut silver strips into small rectangles, place them between a special paper booklet of German butter paper (yellow in color), enclose it in a rexin/leather cover, and beat it continuously with Iron hand hammer for hours. When the varak gets to its final texture and thinness, it is then transferred on to newspapers and cut to size.
Interestingly, India is not the only country where foil is made by such methods. In Germany, small-specialized enterprises produce gold leaf, which is beaten down to very small thickness, for decorative and technical purposes by similar methods. As it is in India, the Jews use the gold foil for food preparations.
As stated by the animal rights group Beauty Without Cruelty, "By 2013 several brands of sliver leaf/varkh/chandi-ka-warq that did not utilise animal skin (vegetarian varak) in their production were available – they were machine-made and therefore did not utilise epidermis/jhilli booklets as stated above". More recently, explaining the shift in methods, alumni of City College in Hyderabad told The New Indian Express, “With the rise of awareness of safe guarding animals and introduction of modern equipments, intestines of bulls and animal skins were replaced with iron headed hammers and German sheets of butter paper respectively.”
Although varakh is not derived from an animal source, there are concerns that the old method of preparation using animal skin can impact the final output of silver foil. There are also concerns about the quality of silver used in the making of varakh. According to the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, silver foil should be 99.9% pure to be used in edible form. There are reports that low quality fake varak is also in use; and even toxic metals like aluminum, nickel, lead, chromium and cadmium are used instead of silver. Consuming these heavy metals can cause serious side effects to one’s health, including Cancers.
In short, animal intestines were indeed used in the manufacturing process of silver foil varakh. After the process is questioned, many manufacturers shifted to manual and automatic methods (using machines) that do not use any animal skins. Nonetheless, there are still some concerns that varakh procured from the unorganized sector is non-vegetarian.
Test for Quality
Genuine silver varakh would be very fine and wafer thin, the aluminum-mixed varks won't be as fine. Silver varks disintegrate rapidly when rubbed between the fingers, but aluminum varks tend to roll up into a solid ball. Also, aluminum foil would be whitish gray in color and is readily soluble in concentrated hydrochloric acid while pure silver foil is not.
What to Do
The easy way to avoid all these issues is to stop the use of varakh. Otherwise, you have to demand for or suggest cruelty-free vegetarian varakh to the sweet shops, fruit vendors and also in temples. Consumers, who suspect that the silver foil varakh is adulterated, can inform the Food and Drug Administration in their area.