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March 22, 2022
We’ve Underestimated Sprinkles

The little specks of corn syrup and food coloring can be so much more than just a cupcake topping or a sundae shop upcharge.

In January, the pastry chef and cofounder of Bakers Against Racism Paola Velez posted an image on her Instagram account of an icing-dribbled Bundt cake showered with skinny little tubes in every shade of the rainbow.

“After 3 years in a global panettone,” she wrote to her 27,000 followers, employing a lesser-used nickname for “pandemic,” “I say the more sprinkles the better.”

Pastry has gone through a “botanical phase” in recent years, Velez explained recently in an email. She, too, had embraced this earthy aesthetic, crowning desserts with nasturtium, eucalyptus, and edible orchids (her Instagram handle is @smallorchids). But after the multiple stresses brought on by the global “panini,” she now swings to the other side of the culinary universe, stocking her pantry with an arsenal of spectacularly artificial sprinkles—all kinds of sprinkles, too.

As a child, Velez often waited for the ice cream truck to come by her local park, Fort Independence Playground in the Bronx, so that she could order a chocolate-sprinkle-crusted cone of soft serve. Then she would let the crunchy, cold sprinkles dissolve in her mouth. “I think we all need to have that childlike joy return to our day-to-day,” she says.

The search for simpler times is littered with sprinkles. Time and again, stumbling in the dark, we’ve come across these brightly colored, marginally edible items and found uplift. For Americans, they’re a familiar sight; sprinkles have been in our midst for decades. Known as jimmies, jazzies, freckles, nonpareils, or hundreds and thousands, among other names, these specks of corn syrup and coloring are a convenient solution for bakers looking for fuss-free decoration. Planted on frosting, bloomed in batter, crusted atop cookies, or scattered on toast, the nutritionless, mostly flavorless, tiny doodads that mimic absolutely nothing found in nature provide outsize comfort with egalitarian underpinnings. And they aren’t going away anytime soon.

“Sprinkles can be chaotic and hard to control, but if you understand a few basic techniques, they become a cohesive unit—a symphony,” says Jackie Alpers, author of Sprinkles! Recipes and Ideas for Rainbowlicious Desserts.

The search for simpler times is littered with sprinkles.

Molly Yeh, a food television star and author, posed on the cover of her 2014 cookbook Molly on the Range with a sprinkle-studded cake. She says that she got into sprinkles when she realized they were a simpler flex for cake decoration, sans professional tools or skills.

“When I first started decorating cakes, some of the fancy frosting techniques intimidated me, but I could wrap my head around finding really pretty sprinkle mixes,” says Yeh. They helped make cake decorating “creatively fulfilling without feeling discouraged from a lack of piping skills.”

Yeh has created a recipe for homemade sprinkles and encourages making your own sprinkle mixes, such as a “sprinkle dukkah” incorporating seeds, spices, nuts, and rose petals that she plans to include in an upcoming cookbook. Yeh admits that sprinkles can be overused and can even sometimes “mask” the beauty of desserts that would be perfectly fine without them. “But, just like any ingredient, when they’re used well, they can really add a lot!”

They certainly can add a lot of visual punch and texture. But one thing sprinkles typically lack is a pronounced flavor beyond “sweet.”

“Mostly the flavor is sweet, with notes of artificial vanilla or chocolate in the case of chocolate sprinkles,” says Allison Kave, cofounder of Brooklyn-based bakery Butter & Scotch, co-owner of Izzy’s Paris and author of First Prize Pies. The sprinkles are mainly there for visual appeal, and their texture can range along with their looks: there are the tubular, oblong squiggles (aka “jimmies”) as well as round nonpareils (or “hundreds and thousands”), which are crunchy.

Then there are flat, wafer-like sprinkles that are much softer. There are also silver dragées, little balls of metallic-colored sugar that are so hard they crack your teeth. Kave says that the taste and texture of sprinkles can degrade over time, too—so the fresher, the better. “While they might seem like a product with a long shelf life, I’ve tasted sprinkles after they’ve sat in the back of a cupboard for a year, and you can definitely taste the difference!” says Kave.

In addition to being an amateur baker’s secret weapon, sprinkles have been embraced by trendy bakeries. A rainbow-sprinkle-studded birthday cake has been the most popular item at Butter & Scotch since the bakery opened in 2015 “by miles,” according to Kave. At Milk Bar, a bakery founded by Christina Tosi in 2008 with locations around the United States, a birthday cake with rainbow sprinkles densely set in its crumb is also the shop’s perennial best seller. At Flour Shop, a bakery founded by the multimedia artist Amirah Kassem, a sprinkle-filled “explosion cake” has created ripples of Instagram likes since 2017. Alpers’s sprinkles cookbook was published in 2013, but she says that the sprinkles trend has been evolving for decades and has only recently culminated in a fever pitch in the last decade or so.

How did we get to this artificially colored wonderland? It may be tempting to time-stamp the rise of sprinkles—you could make a case for the ’90s being the start of sprinkle mania in the United States. That’s when Pillsbury introduced Funfetti™ cake mixes (a white cake with sprinkles that dye the batter with rainbow dots), and when Betty Crocker made Dunkaroos (cookies dipped in sprinkle-studded frosting) a crown jewel of school cafeteria trades. But sprinkles have played an integral role in the unicorn-everything trend of the last decade, as well as the cupcake craze of the 2000s. In more recent years, however, sprinkles have been appointed by bakers celebrating LGBTQ causes and women’s empowerment, along with messaging piped in pastel pink. According to Alpers, multicolor sprinkles serve as a metaphor for inclusivity, diversity, and teamwork, therefore helping advocate for serious issues while still being playful in tone: “There are a lot of them all working together!”


But to get to the beginning of sprinkles, at least in the United States, we might start with a Russian immigrant named Sam Born who arrived in the country in 1910. In 1923, he established a confections company in Brooklyn, New York, marketing the freshness of his products with a sign that declared “Just Born,” according to Meg Dowd, corporate affairs manager of Just Born Quality Confections, which is now based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. According to company legend, the tubular, basmati-rice-size specks that many people’s minds immediately conjure when they think of “sprinkles” were invented by the company sometime in the 1930s, thanks to an employee named James Bartholomew. They were thus marketed as “jimmies” after their inventor, and they became a popular topping for ice cream and baked goods.

This nickname, which was widespread on the East Coast, is a contentious issue today. There are rumors that it’s a derogatory term for Black people, particularly when applied to the chocolate variety of sprinkles, and in recent years, this name has been dropped or changed to “sprinkles” by brands such as Brigham’s Ice Cream. As for Just Born, the company stopped making the confection they claim to have developed more than 60 years ago, choosing to focus on other candy products such as Mike and Ike.

In reality, many forms of sprinkles were available throughout 19th-century America, as they were in Europe and elsewhere. Some versions may have been inspired by mukhwas, a South Asian sweet snack of candy-coated fennel, anise, and other seeds (only these served a nutritional purpose, to aid digestion and freshen breath after a meal). For instance, the Dutch brand De Ruijter sells candied anise seeds under the trademarked name “muisjes” (meaning “mice”), among other varieties of little candy toppings, including hagelslag (meaning “hailstorm”).

There’s a Dutch tradition of new parents offering pink-and-white or blue-and-white muisjes on biscuits to friends and family to celebrate a birth, says Dutch food writer Dorothy Porker. As for the long, skinny, sprinkle-esque hagelslag—and often chocolate hagelslag, which, unlike in the United States, must contain at least 32 percent cocoa—there is no need for a special celebration. It’s a common feature of breakfast and lunch, where it’s sprinkled on bread; a canister of the stuff is often set on tables next to salt and pepper.

“It’s very funny and interesting that, except for maybe vlokken (a chocolate curls topping), we don’t really use sprinkles for decoration,” says Porker. “They’re really just to put on bread.”

This is very different from Americans’ embrace of sprinkles, where their presence strongly suggests a birthday party, replete with cone-shaped cardboard hats and party blowers. And with the proliferation of bakeries selling retro-cute cakes covered with rainbow sprinkles, the term “birthday cake” has become a catchall to sell everything from ice cream flavors to lip balm.

Kave notes that in France, where she currently resides, it’s very rare to find sprinkles on desserts. And the types that are used there, called vermicelles, are smaller and thinner than American sprinkles—as well as more muted in tone.

“I make a point of bringing a gallon or two of sprinkles back with me every time I go home to New York for a visit, to do my part to show the French the magic of good rainbow sprinkles,” says Kave.

The use of imported American sprinkles has recently run afoul of authorities in the UK, since some of the artificial food coloring they contain are banned there. This resulted in a London-based bakery being forced to stop selling its popular cakes and cookies last October in a skirmish known as Sprinklegate. The offending dye, FD&C Red No. 3, has been shown to cause cancer in mice, and while the Food and Drug Administration placed limitations on it in 1990, its use continues in some food products—like sprinkles.

This brings us back to the artificiality of the ingredient. American sprinkles make no pretense of resembling any food. The rainbow-colored ones are uniformly unmemorable in flavor, despite their many colors—and the chocolate ones, which are not regulated like the Dutch varieties, often have a weak connection to cocoa beyond their dark-brown exterior. According to the FDA, silver dragées—those shiny little balls you might see on fancy wedding cakes or Christmas cookies—are not even classified as a food but as a nonedible decoration. How can an ingredient whose sole purpose is to add joy and comfort to food be so odious to health authorities?

For the record, there are some sprinkles that feature all-natural dyes. Yeh noted a brand called Hardcore Sprinkles, which appears to now be out of business, and India Tree, which makes sprinkles with plant-based food coloring only. Still, the majority of colored sprinkles—such as those sold by Williams Sonoma, Sprinkle Pop, and Flour Shop—have more vibrant colors, thanks to artificial colorings including Red No. 3 and Yellow No. 5, which has also raised health concerns.

Seattle-based India Tree has enjoyed steady growth since its founding in 2012, with annual sales of around 100,000 pounds of sprinkles, says sales manager Julie Bello. Plus, “the pandemic created an interest in baking cakes, cookies, and all things delicious,” she explains.

The rise of pandemic-related baking has been well documented in the past two years. Whether it was desserts or sourdough bread, feelings of fear, helplessness, and boredom brought on by COVID-19 fueled a carb-cooking boom the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. Without public meeting places, social media served as the trend’s distributor and, by all accounts, helped fan its flames.

“The invention of visual social food media like Instagram and TikTok has played into the hands of sprinkles, because it’s this instant visual offering of excitement,” says David Sax, journalist and author of several books, including Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue.

In Tastemakers Sax traces the sprinkles-adjacent boom of cupcakes to early-2000s New York City in the throes of post-9/11 pain—as well as a 2000 episode of Sex and the City featuring Carrie and Miranda outside Magnolia Bakery. In that episode, the show’s protagonist contemplates her crush Aiden while chowing down on a whole cupcake. “As it was put on reruns, that episode got some cachet, and after 9/11, it turned into this cultural search for comfort food,” says Sax.

With the help of Carrie and Miranda, cupcakes were transformed from a child’s birthday treat into a cultural icon of adult fun and, somehow, female empowerment.

Sprinkles, says Sax, may be undergoing a similar transition—from infantilizing to powerful and associated with pride. This couldn’t have happened without a period of stress and struggle, metamorphosizing into sweet surrender.

Moreover, almost everyone has fond childhood memories punctuated with sprinkles. Got an A on your report card? Sprinkles. It’s your birthday? Sprinkles. Snuck a snack at a friend’s house that you weren’t allowed at home? Sprinkles may have been involved. Those kinds of memories bring warm and fuzzy feelings of safety, no matter what the heck the things contain.

As we stumble into a third year of the COVID-19 crisis, tracking variants along with hate crimes and police brutality, feeling helpless about economic turmoil, war, wildfires, surging gas prices, and giant spiders and burning out on Zoom meetings, there’s a colorful vision that hearkens back to simpler times on social media. Who can blame us for embracing it?

Got an A on your report card? Sprinkles. It’s your birthday? Sprinkles. Snuck a snack at a friend’s house that you weren’t allowed at home? Sprinkles may have been involved.

Throwing sprinkles on a classic dessert that is typically bare of such outlandish displays of joy seems to signify a shift in mood shared by many. What else could all at once be associated with innocence and glamour, joy and rage, inclusivity and artificiality, excess and simplicity, comfort and despair?

On the surface, our sprinkle obsession may seem contradictory to the rest of what we eat, an exception to an otherwise nutritious diet that’s welcomed for some odd reason we can’t quite pinpoint. But sprinkles have surprisingly long legs in the Western world. It’s a trend that will keep growing in popularity, compounding in interest over cycles of innocence lost and found. So, like a loud party guest who’s overstayed their welcome, we’ve determined to just let her rip.

Shelve It explores the world of groceries, from the fluorescent-lit aisles to the nooks and crannies of your cupboard. We dive into why certain ingredients got pantry staple status, the connection between cookbooks and buying habits, the online-ification of grocery shopping, and what gets shelved along the way.

Cathy Erway

Cathy Erway is the author of the cookbooks The Food of Taiwan and Sheet Pan Chicken, and the memoir The Art of Eating In. She co-wrote Win Son Presents: A Taiwanese American Cookbook. She hosts the podcast Self Evident, exploring Asian American stories. She has won a James Beard Award and IACP award for her writing at TASTE.