Is Propylene Glycol Safe?

Recently, the ingredient propylene glycol has been in the news. We first learned about this ingredient from Sean O’Keefe, PhD, a food science professor at Virginia Tech, in a previous post about fast food. Dr. O’Keefe said proplyene glycol is a colorless liquid that posesses a slight sweet taste. It’s not antifreeze. Propylene glycol is classified by the FDA as GRAS (generally regarded as safe), and is therefore safe to use in foods.

We had some more questions about propylene glycol, so we reached out to Dr. O’Keefe for more information.

Is it safe to consume food or drinks that contain propylene glycol?

Dr. O’Keefe:

Yes, it is perfectly safe to consume foods containing propylene glycol (PG). Propylene glycol can only be toxic if used intravenously at high dosage or when applied to compromised skin (burns). Once ingested, PG is either excreted in the urine or is metabolized to lactic acid, a normal metabolic product. Ethylene glycol (used in car antifreeze) is toxic because it is metabolized to oxalic acid, which is toxic. As an ingredient in Fireball Whiskey, PG is safe.

Why is there a difference in the amount of propylene glycol that is acceptable in the U.S. vs. Europe?

Dr. O’Keefe:

Food additives are regulated in the U.S. based on their function and in what food category they can be used. Food laws are different in other countries. As an example, saccharin is allowed as an artificial sweetener in the U.S. but cyclamate is not. The opposite is true in Canada.

PG is considered non-toxic and is GRAS in the U.S. Regulations in Europe are different and what is allowed in the U.S. is not allowed in Europe in this case. Different countries have different laws. Different states in the U.S. have different laws. It is hard to know why without being in the room with committees that make the decisions. I assume that the Europeans considered people with metabolic disorders more than the Americans did when determining safe levels. Propylene glycol IS allowed in Europe, just with different use levels.

What would happen if this ingredient was removed from food products? Would the food taste differently? How else would it impact the food?

Dr. O’Keefe:

Propylene glycol adds sweetness, body, and can be used as a solvent for flavorings and other ingredients. I’m not sure for what specific reason it is used in Fireball Whiskey; I’ve read that it is used as a sweetener. It is safe to consume propylene glycol.

Something people seem to be missing is that it is used here in an alcoholic beverage, and over-consumption of alcohol is dangerous (alcohol is toxic). Consumers should be much more aware of the dangers of the alcohol in the drink than the propylene glycol.

choose your own adventure” by Marc Levin is licensed under CC BY.