In the last 10-15 years or so, there has been a growing interest in what is goes in our food. Some would say this is due to an more educated consumer base and more access to information. Others say that growing skepticism towards food companies plays a role. Regardless, the concern about food additives, such as propylene glycol, is greater than ever before. In fact, this concern was a major force behind the organic foods trend, which is here to stay.1
As of right now, it’s not clear how much healthier organic food is than the alternative.2 What is clear, is that with all the scrutiny on food, it’s not surprising that food additives are under the microscope. When people found out a common chemical in food also was in antifreeze, there was an uproar. But is it warranted? Figuring this out requires a close look at propylene glycol in food. We also need to look at the current science to find out the truth about propylene glycol.
How Did Propylene Glycol Get In Our Food?
Propylene glycol a is petroleum-based, colorless, creamy liquid. It has no taste.3 It is used to absorb extra water, or maintain moisture, in several different products. These include food, pet food, cosmetics and even certain medicines. It is also used as a preservative, particularly in food and drink. And yes, it is also a component in antifreeze. While this is enough to turn many people off immediately, it’s important to look a little closer.
The FDA recognizes propylene glycol as GRAS (generally recognized as safe). This means that experts say it is safe within its intended use.4 In the body, propylene glycol metabolizes into pyruvic, acetic, and lactic acids. These are all normal and non-toxic. A fourth substance, propionaldehyde, could be hazardous. But to be dangerous, you would have to consume a massive amount at one time.5 In theory, that should put the whole debate to bed, right?
Not necessarily. On top of the antifreeze association, there’s the issue of ethylene glycol.
The two sound similar, and both have heat transfer properties. As a result, they can be confused. Ethylene glycol is a component of almost all radiator fluid products in the United States. It is not used in any food or drink. There is no question of its toxicity.6 Ethylene glycol poisoning, if left untreated, can be fatal. But, this particular chemical is limited to automotive products. However, the similarities between the two substances have caused unwarranted concern. Though there’s no danger of ethylene glycol in your food, the association can be unnerving.
Should You Worry About It?
Propylene glycol, in many ways, is a victim of mistaken identity or guilt by association. As long as you don’t consume 25 mg for every kilogram of body weight, you should be fine.7 The levels of propylene glycol in food are nowhere even close to this. Yet, it is important to note that standards aren’t universal. Some people may recall a case in the E.U. in 2014, where a popular whiskey was recalled in the U.K, Sweden, Finland, and Norway. This was due to the fact that it had more propylene glycol than allowed under EU law.
This incident was more innocent than nefarious. To be compliant with regulations, the whiskey in question had two different formulas for the U.S.and E.U. regions. The U.S. version had higher levels of propylene glycol. In fact, a spokesperson even went as far to call the chemical “a key part” of the whiskey’s formula.The batches were accidentally swapped, causing the issue.8 Since then, there have been no other incidents.
No scientific studies formally connect propylene glycol ingestion to health issues. Propylene glycol, though, is a common component in many synthetic mists or smokes. These are often used for theatrical productions or concerts. Some fire departments also use them as a part of training. Inhalation and dermal exposure to propylene glycol may be associated with adverse reactions.9 These reactions may range from skin reactions to wheezing, and chest tightness.10,11
In a way, this does make sense. When used for this purpose, there is far less control over the amount of contact a person has with propylene glycol. But it’s important to note that all studies done in this regard are about the smoke in general. This means there are several other components that may be present. As of right now, there is no way to confirm the exact role propylene glycol plays in any negative reactions.
No solid, human-based studies have confirmed any major issues with propylene glycol consumption.
Only extreme cases involving rapid injections of medications with these components have shown any potential. Infants, babies in the womb, and the elderly may be more sensitive to it.12 With this said, these are extreme circumstances. Propylene glycol toxicity is rare.
Being A Smart Shopper
The fact of the matter is that science can’t confirm how it can is yet. Much of the concern over propylene glycol may stem from confusion with its deadlier cousin, ethylene glycol. That said, there’s nothing wrong with wanting fewer added chemicals in our food, or in pet food.
What can you, as a consumer do if you’re concerned about propylene glycol? Read labels, and do your homework. Look up a company to see what food additives they use. Also, be aware there are other names for propylene glycol. If you see 1,2-propanediol or 1,2-dihydroxypropane, know that these are synonyms. At the moment, you’re likely not in danger from propylene glycol in food or other sources. But if you want to play it safe, being a conscious shopper will take you far.
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