The base for traditional antifreeze is the deadly ethylene glycol. It’s relative, propylene glycol, is used to manufacture so-called ‘safer’ anti-freezes for people who don’t want to accidently poison their pets and surrounding wildlife.
This clear slightly syrupy liquid (at room temperature) is not only used to make antifreeze and deicing solutions for cars, airplanes and boats … it’s also used to make polyester compounds and as a solvent in the paint and plastics industries.[i]
Propylene glycol is also found in the food supply, in items you probably have in your fridge and freezer right now … ice cream, frozen yogurt and even beer are some common dietary sources of this synthetic chemical. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies propylene glycol as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS status), it’s a possible carcinogen and classified as “expected to be toxic or harmful” on Environment Canada’s Domestic Substance List.[ii]
When used in personal care products (another one of propylene glycol’s many uses), this substance is also linked to skin allergies and irritation at concentrations as low as 2 percent.[iii]
Getting back to your food … you’re probably wondering why an anti-freeze chemicals is commonly used in ice cream …
Have You Ever Made Homemade Ice Cream?
I ask because, if you have, you know that it turns into a rock-hard brick when it hits the freezer. You have to let it sit out on the counter for a bit before you even attempt to scoop it, because there’s no way you’re getting a scoop fresh out of the freezer. It’s far too hard.
Commercial ice cream, on the other hand, is another story. It’s far easier to scoop out a bowlful even right from the freezer. Convenient? Yes, but also slightly unsettling once you realize this is courtesy of the anti-freeze chemical propylene glycol.[iv] As reported by io9:[v]
“Antifreeze proteins are a must in the food industry, especially in products such as low-fat ice creams and frozen yogurts. Generally, these products replace fat with water, which freezes solid in cold temperatures. Mixing in antifreeze proteins with the ice cream keep these foods from turning into large blocks of ice.”
Propylene Glycol’s in Your Beer, Cheese, Salad Dressing and More
Propylene glycol actually has many uses in the food industry above and beyond frozen items. Here’s just a short list of how it’s often used:[vi]
- Retains moisture in products to keep them from drying out (humectant) … used in chewing gum, cookies, candy and chewy dog foods
- Forms a layer around oils to prevent clumps (dispersant or emulsifier) … used in soft drinks
- Carries flavors and colors throughout products (carrier solvent) … used in cakes, biscuits and sweets
- Stabilizes ingredients found in beer, salad dressings and pre-made cookie and cake mixes
- Adds desired texture (thickening agent) … used in processed cheeses and yogurt
If you’re a beer drinker you might be interested to know that propylene glycol is often used as a foam stabilizer to give your beer a longer-lived, creamier foam. According to Customized Brewing Solutions (CBS):[vii]
“STABILFOAM [propylene glycol alginate] improves the compactness of the beer head and the volume of the head … The creamier foam formed from beer stabilized with STABILFOAM is stable, long-lived and is very resistant to breakdown in the presence of food fats, soap or cosmetics … Beer treated with STABILFOAM forms an attractive, white and long-lasting lace on the glass as the beer is consumed.”
So what, exactly, are the risks of consuming propylene glycol? No one really knows. To be fair, this additive does not appear to have quite the toxic reputation as some others — like partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, BHA, and caramel coloring. The Environmental Working Group gives it a hazard score of 3 on a scale of 1-10, which makes it a “moderate” hazard.[viii]
Still, do you really want a synthetic additive that’s sold as an industrial de-icing agent in your hot fudge sundae or pint of beer? Wouldn’t you rather know that the creamy foam on your beer is there as a measure of quality and goodness … not simply as the result of synthetic trickery?
The use of propylene glycol is just one more example of the numerous synthetic additives found in processed foods, and it’s hard to argue against limiting them in your diet. To do so, get back to the basics of food. Ditch processed foods in favor of fresh, whole foods, and if you really want ice cream or frozen yogurt make your own at home. It will be better for you … and it will taste better too (and the same holds true even for beer …).