IPA in cake decorating products

Isopropyl alcohol (IPA) has been widely used in the food industry and the cake decorating world for decades.  It has always been considered perfectly safe to use and consume in small amounts - being an alcohol, no-one is suggesting it should be deliberately drunk nor should it be consumed in anything other than tiny, trace quantities

The food-grade IPA we stock is 99.9% pure (that's strong!) with the remaining 0.1% almost entirely water.  Like all alcohols, IPA is toxic but - again, like all alcohols - its use is permitted because the regulatory authorities assume common sense is exercised

Unless it is misused (and alcohol abuse aside) there remains no suggestion that the use of IPA in cake decorating products is harmful

IPA makes the perfect cleaner for confectioners' glaze, airbrushes, brushes and any sugarcraft tools and equipment and has traditionally been used as a thinner and as Rejuvenator Fluid

Recently, in Spain, a question was asked about IPA's role in icing colouring pens.  This resulted in European-wide advice which, here in the UK, falls within the remit of the Food Standards Agency (FSA)

The issue is quite technical and although we're happy to explain the situation as best we can - in the way that it has been explained to us by the FSA - Cake Stuff cannot be held responsible for any part of this information which subsequently turns out to be incorrect or superseded by latest developments  . . . in other words, please don't shoot the messengers!

There are 3 classifications / technical terms which could possibly be applied to IPA depending on how it is used as part of a cake decorating product . . . IPA could either be (1) a food additive, (2) a carrier or (3) an extract / extraction solvent

(1) food additive - IPA has never been a permitted food additive as pure alcohol has no value / use as an additive.  Permitted additives are denoted by their E number, which simply shows they are permitted within Europe

(2) carrier - a carrier is the medium through which a permitted additive (eg food colouring) is transferred to the food.  IPA was used as a carrier in products like icing colouring pens as it prevented the colouring from solidifying inside the pen and allowed the edible ink to flow properly.  IPA has not been a permitted carrier since 1995 (EU reg EC/95/2) and this is what flagged up in Spain

(3) extract solvent - an extract solvent is similar to a carrier, except that the extract solvent then evaporates.  Because the IPA is effectively removed from the food through evaporation, IPA is permitted in icing pens etc if considered an extract solvent (EU reg 2009/32/C)

Here's the problem . . .

the FSA admit that there is no precise definition of what constitutes an extract solvent and that the term has not been defined by the regulations nor tested by the courts, so it's far from clear what exactly is a carrier and what is an extract solvent.  Within the cake decorating and sugarcraft world, it has long been understood that in a product like icing colouring pens or when mixing Rejuvenator Fluid with Powder / Dust Colourings or Edible Lustres, the alcohol evaporates leaving only the colour behind on the icing

Because the alcohol evaporates, then it's fine to use IPA as it is classed as an extract solvent... except that it also acts as a carrier, in which case IPA is not allowed.  So, in this example, is IPA permitted or not permitted in the product?

Cake Stuff's position is that in the context of icing colourings, pens, paints etc then it is probably impossible to have an extract solvent without it also being a carrier - so the regulations contradict themselves and the argument becomes circular

This isn't unheard of within the food industry, so all we can do is try to follow the latest FSA advice until someone, somewhere, comes up with a definitive answer and we can all get on with decorating cakes

Several manufacturers including Sugarflair and Rainbow Dust have already reformulated products so that they now contain ethanol . . . icing pens, paints, liquids, airbrush paints, lacquers, gels etc are now ethanol based

IPA is still available and it is still perfectly legal to sell IPA based products, depending on their intended use.  IPA can be used in Confectioners' Glaze Cleaner, Airbrush Cleaner and in other products

Here at Cake Stuff, we've already switched to ethanol based products but are just waiting on new labels arriving for our bottles of Rejuvenator Fluid, Confectioners' Glaze, Leaf Glaze and Dipping Solution so, until the new labels arrive, these products aren't available for sale . . . sorry!

Please remember that no-one is suggesting any health risk and there has been no recall of products containing IPA but, as we hope you can see from the explanation above, the whole argument surrounding whether IPA is a carrier, an extract solvent or both, is likely to continue for some time

We'll keep you updated as we learn more

One last thought . . .

It's all too easy for companies to criticise the FSA and European Food Safety Regulations but they have a serious job to do and we believe that anyone involved in the food industry should support them, even in instances like this where we all realise the logic is flawed

Yes, it can be frustrating at times, but there is a process to be followed and as long as we all accept this then our safety and the safety of our customers is much more assured

Please remember that the use of pure alcohol - whether IPA, ethanol or whatever - requires care.  These products are highly flammable so always use in a well ventilated space away from naked flames or any potential source of ignition.  Please also always store safely, with the cap tightly in place, out of the reach of children.  Swallowing as little as 20ml of IPA can cause nausea, low blood pressure and abdominal pain.  It would only take 100ml to kill a small child and 250ml to kill a healthy adult . . . no pun intended, but that's a sobering thought and perfectly illustrates why we all should take this seriously

Some of our competitors have been quick to write this off as another example of European meddling or bureaucratic nonsense . . . they're probably not totally wrong, but we don't think there is anything to be gained in simply slagging off people trying to keep the rest of us safe and wanted to try and give our customers as full an explanation as we could

(last updated March 2016)

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