What is propylene glycol and why is it in so many foods?

Propylene glycol can improve the flavor, texture, and look of food and increase the shelf-life of a product.

what is propylene glycol

First time you heard the word “propylene glycol”, what came into your head?

I, for one, immediately thought of an industrial-grade chemical used in factories.

But, what is propylene glycol, really?

Quite surprisingly, this is a substance found in many food products. Yes, propylene glycol is a food additive.

It may sound unfamiliar, but the substance is actually just a synthetic additive found in many foods and is part of the alcohol chemical group.

It is almost tasteless and kind of resembles like water in terms of color and odor (or lack thereof). However, its consistency is a bit more viscous. The reason why it is more favored than water in some food products is that it does a better job in dissolving certain substances. Additionally, its ability to retain moisture is also more dependable than water. These are some of the reasons why there is the utilization of propylene glycol in foods.

What is Propylene Glycol: The Chemical Side

Propylene glycol has many chemical names (or nicknames, if you will), such as 1,2-dihydroxypropane, 1,2-propanediol, Trimethyl glycol, and Methyl ethyl glycol. This is a by-product of the hydration of propylene oxide through the process that is sped up through catalysis of either base or acid.

The Industrial Uses of Propylene Glycol

It is included in a lot of pharmaceutical preparations – be it oral, topical, or intravenous methods. Based on that, it is deemed safe to use propylene glycol in foods. However, if taken excessively, it can be toxic. Many people mistaken propylene glycol with ethylene glycol. For the record, the latter is used in the polyester fibres manufactures and antifreeze compositions. It is toxic to the human body if ingested.

Now, enough about science. Let us discuss the role of propylene glycol in food production.

What is Propylene Glycol: Its Role in the Food Industry

Propylene glycol can improve the flavor, texture, and look of the food. So, externally, it can make certain food look appetizing. But, it can also increase the shelf-life of a product, which makes it an appealing additive in the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry.

Different Roles of Propylene Glycol in Foods:

  • It can be used as an anti-caking agent.

It can help get rid of clump formation which is often an issue for those who love to cook. Your food can be as delicious as it can be, but if it with lumps, it will not look as appetizing as it is. This is very helpful in dried soups or grated cheese.

  • It can be used as a carrier.

The propylene glycol in foods serves as carrier vessels. It can help in dissolving other food additives used in the food preparation process. This includes the use of colors, flavors, and antioxidants.

  • It can be used as an antioxidant.

A good preservative, having propylene glycol in foods means that it will have a longer shelf life. This is because the substance can reduce the degradation caused by oxygen.

  • It can be used as a thickener, stabilizer, emulsifier, and dough strengthener.

Since it can bind different food components, it can modify the starches used in dough making it more stable. Additionally, it also has a thickening effect, which is ideal when baking.

Propylene glycol can also prevent food ingredients from getting separated. For example, the oil and vinegar found in salad dressings.

  • It can be used as a moisture preserver.

Adding propylene glycol in foods will help retain the much-needed moisture, preventing it from drying out. The substance’s hygroscopic nature is one of its edges over water as a food additive.

  • It can be used as a texturizer or processing aid.

If you want to improve the appeal of the food that you are preparing, propylene glycol will come in handy. Also, it is helpful in altering the texture or mouthfeel of the food products you are preparing.

What is Propylene Glycol: Examples of Where Propylene Glycol Can Be Found

Since you already know the uses of propylene glycol in  the food industry, here are some examples of food products that are known to contain this as an ingredient:

  • Drink mixes
  • Cake mixes
  • Dressings
  • Soft drinks
  • Food colorants
  • Bread and pastry
  • Fast foods
  • Dairy products

For non-food products, it is usually added in injectable medications or creams and ointments. You can find it in the ingredients list of some cosmetics and hygiene products, as well.

For industrial use, it is added in paints, anti-freeze and on e-cigarettes.

The last few parts may have gotten you freaked out. If propylene glycol is included in the manufacture of these non-food products, is it really, truly safe for consumption?

Is Putting Propylene Glycol in Foods a Good Idea?

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, it is considered safe for human consumption. As additives, it can be used as indirect and direct food additive.

However, in European countries, propylene glycol is only recommended for use as a color solvent, antioxidant, enzymes, and emulsifiers. Only a maximum of 0.45 grams in a single pound should be available in the resulting food product.

According  to the World Health Organization (WHO), only a maximum of 11.4 mg of the substance in every pound of an individual’s body weight should be consumed in one day. That would be around 25 mg per kilogram. Americans are estimated to have exposure to 15 mg per pound or 34 mg per kilogram in a day.

While this may be a cause of concern, only one reported incident of toxicity is known. This occurred when a man gobbled down copious amounts of cinnamon whiskey, which contains propylene glycol. The symptoms were attributed to alcohol overdose, but it can also be caused by the excessive amount of propylene glycol ingested.

Aside from this incident, there are many individuals who have allergic reactions to propylene glycol. There is also a possibility of increased risks in the development of neurological issues and heart problems.

There has not been any direct report citing that an individual experienced such, it is still crucial to keep your diet in check. Since the current consumption is beyond what is recommended, there should be active measures taken on how to reduce it below the suggested amount. One surefire way is to cut down on processed foods.

what is propylene glycol

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