The Truth about Propylene Glycol in Food; What You Should Know

Published January 7th, 2022 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Erik Rivera
Medically Reviewed:
Camille Freking

Propylene Glycol 101 | Uses | Safety Concerns | Side Effects | Should I avoid it | Alternatives

Propylene glycol is an organic compound found in many foods and drinks and it is often used as an additive to keep food from spoiling, or as a thickener for sauces among other uses.

But propylene glycol is not exclusive to foods as it can also be found in a variety of products including some medicines, personal care products like cosmetics, and even your car's antifreeze.

There are many misconceptions about propylene glycol including whether or not it is safe for consumption. In this article, we will answer these questions and more.

We'll discuss what propylene glycol is, how it affects the body, why it's dangerous if ingested in large quantities, alternatives to propylene glycol that you might want to consider, and more.

What is propylene glycol?

Propylene glycol is a synthetic liquid substance that is used in many common products.

It's found in everything from food and beverages to beauty products and pharmaceuticals.

Propylene glycol is also an ingredient in antifreeze, which is why it's sometimes called "antifreeze propylene glycol."

Propylene glycol is a propane-1,2-diol with the chemical formula C3H8O2.

It's used as an additive in food and drink products, for example, to create artificial smoke flavorings for items such as popcorn or fog machines.

As mentioned above, propylene glycol is also used to dilute ethanol, creating propylene alcohol which can be used in antifreeze solutions. It has also been used as a substitute for ethylene glycol in antifreeze too.

Yet despite its many uses, propylene glycol has been shown to have side effects on humans by some studies, including allergic reactions.

What is propylene glycol used for?

Aside from its use in antifreeze, propylene glycol is also used as a solvent in many pharmaceuticals.

It's found in products such as eye drops, nasal sprays, oral drugs, and topical medications and can also be used as a pharmaceutical solvent.

Propylene glycol is also a common ingredient in some e-cigarettes and as an ingredient inside vaporizer cartridges and the toxicity due to inhalation of propylene glycol is not fully understood.

Other uses include being a direct food additive as a carrier for flavors and a solvent for food colors in food and drink products, including alcoholic beverages, and can even be used as a dough strengthener.

Other food and drink applications include:

  • Emulsifier - helps keep oil and water together in food products
  • Stabilizer - can help prevent ingredients from separating or changing the consistency
  • Texturizing agent - used to make the texture of processed foods similar to fat, which it replaces and it's also used as a thickener for drinks such as fruit juices and sports drinks
  • Humectant - helps keep food moist, preventing it from drying out
  • Preservative - can help to prevent the growth of bacteria or fungus in some food products

Is it safe for propylene glycol to be in my food or drink?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified propylene glycol as "generally recognized as safe" or GRAS for short.

This means that the FDA has found propylene glycol to be safe for human consumption at the levels currently being used.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also classifies propylene glycol as safe for human consumption, but at a slightly higher level. Is propylene glycol safe for propylene glycol to be in my food or drink?

The answer is yes, according to the FDA and WHO propylene glycol is safe in the appropriate levels in food.

What are the side effects of propylene glycol?

Like most chemicals that we come into contact with on a regular basis, propylene glycol has some adverse side effects that have been documented although it has been predominantly safe.

Potential effects include a risk of an allergic response due to exposure to propylene glycol.

A skin reaction can occur such as allergic contact dermatitis due to contact with propylene glycol.

There is one known case of toxicity through drinking it in a person who drank excessive amounts of cinnamon whiskey.

Besides this one case, no other cases of propylene glycol poisoning through food or drink have been recorded with the recommended levels of propylene glycol per dose.

However, there have been cases where people have ingested massive amounts of propylene glycol from non-food sources and have become sick.

For example, someone who accidentally ingested the contents of an ice pack and a woman who was given medication with high doses of propylene glycol.

It should be noted that it has very low toxicity and has NOT been shown to cause cancer.

Many sites state there is also a risk of a heart attack but this is only has been noticed in small children through medication and not because of food or drink.

Various neurological symptoms have also been noticed in propylene glycol toxicity but, again, this is due to toxicity from medications and not from food or drink.

Are there certain people that should avoid propylene glycol?

There are some people who should avoid propylene glycol. These people are those with allergies to propylene glycol or any of the other ingredients in it, such as ethanol.

If you have ever had an allergic reaction to anything that contained propylene glycol, then you should avoid it.

Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers may want to also avoid propylene glycol although there is no evidence of propylene glycol being harmful to humans in the recommended propylene glycol concentrations.

Infants and children under 4 should also avoid propylene glycol.

Children under this age are more sensitive to chemicals ingested and can have adverse effects if propylene glycol is consumed by them in large amounts.

Both pregnant women and children under 4 have lower levels of an enzyme that will help the body break down propylene glycol.

How can I avoid propylene glycol?

If you're concerned about propylene glycol and would like to avoid it, there are a few things you can do.

To do this, you should check the ingredient list of the products you use and see if propylene glycol is listed. If it is, try to find an alternative product that doesn't contain it.

Finally, avoid using medications that contain propylene glycol and ask your doctor or pharmacist if there may be an alternative.

Is there an alternative to propylene glycol?

There are many alternatives that can be used instead of propylene glycol for numerous uses, including its use in antifreeze solutions or as a solvent in medicines.

For example, one substitute is ethyl alcohol which doesn't have the same side effects but performs the same functions.

Other substitutes include propanediol, glycerin, and polyethylene glycol.

Summary

Propylene glycol is a chemical that has been used for a wide variety of purposes as a food additive since the 1930s.

It is also used as an ingredient in cosmetic products and in the pharmaceutical industry. Propylene glycol toxicity can occur through ingestion of high levels, usually from medication, although this is rare.

However, there have not been any reports of propylene glycol toxicity due to food or drink consumption besides one case where a man excessively drank cinnamon-flavored whiskey.

Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should avoid propylene glycol as well as infants and children under the age of four because they all have lower levels of enzymes needed to break propylene glycol down.

There is no evidence that propylene glycol is harmful to humans in accepted doses, but as with anything, people should avoid ingestion if they are unsure of its effects.

There are many substitutes for propylene glycol that can be used in its place.

References and Sources:

ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

doi.org

ntp.niehs.nih.gov

cfpub.epa.gov

atsdr.cdc.gov

cdc.gov

federalregister.gov

ofmpub.epa.gov

iaspub.epa.gov

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