And Finally

Good enough to eat?

Clay used for porcelain is being served up in meals as ‘edible earth’

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Fancy eating some pottery? That’s the question the Chinese media has been asking after news emerged that an online shop has been selling white clay, or kaolin, as a nutritional product and has rebranded its offering as ‘edible earth’.

Kaolin is a vital ingredient in the production of porcelain, which for millennia was one of China’s most sought after exports.

But now, rather than eating off the said porcelain, a merchant on Alibaba’s popular e-commerce site Taobao is offering recipes for how to consume the white clay as food instead.

The China Daily notes that one of the concoctions recommends mixing 20 grams of kaolin with 50 grams of melted chocolate, then freezing it, and serving it up as a dessert.

Another suggestion, says the newspaper, is baking potatoes in a mixture of kaolin and water.

The clay is being sold for Rmb298 ($45.22) for a 750-gram pack, and is evidently proving popular as the seller says he is short of supplies and that buyers are on a waiting list. The kaolin is imported from Spain, in spite of the fact there is an abundance of it in China (particularly in cities like Jingdezhen, where kilns have produced porcelain for centuries). WiC can only imagine the use of an imported variety relates to food safety concerns and suspicions that China’s kaolin reserves may have been polluted by contaminated groundwater and industrial sewage.

Which leads to the bigger question: is kaolin safe to eat, Spanish or otherwise? Modern Express notes that in ancient times the Chinese ate the clay during periods of famine, but that consumption could lead to stomach problems and even death.

That’s probably why kaolin’s usage in China today is supposed to be restricted. Last year food regulators released new safety standards and categorised the white clay as an additive of similar potency to sulphur and gelatin. The amounts that can be used in food and beverage preparation are prescribed: for example, brewers can use it as a clarifier, China Daily says, but the aluminium silicate must be processed to reduce its arsenic and lead to safe levels.

Traditionally kaolin has been used in a variety of industries, including cosmetics, papermaking and in medicines. But the Beijing Morning Post says that kaolin’s rebranding as a “gourmet food” coincides with increasing interest in the concept of “molecular gastronomy” among Chinese foodies. Still, it points out that most consumers are unaware of the risks that come with eating it. The fact that kaolin is being sold on Taobao shows the “shortcomings in the supervision of online food operators”, the newspaper further complains. The country’s spotty food safety record risks being further compromised by this regulatory “blind spot”, it warns, which is leading to several other unhealthy products being marketed online to those it terms as the “ignorant and fearless”.

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