Propylene Glycol: Antifreeze For Your Food

photo by Steven Depolo via Flickr 

What does antifreeze have in common with some of your favorite junk food, sodas, and cosmetic products? Maybe more than you might think.

Propylene glycol, a chemical compound present in anti-freeze, has been thrust into the public eye following a recall of Fireball Whiskey in Sweden, Norway, and Finland–countries which have far stricter (pdf) regulations on the substance compared to the U.S.

But what exactly is propylene glycol, and why is it allowed in our food and drinks as well as toxic concoctions like anti-freeze?

The compound and usage

By definition, propylene glycol is a synthetic liquid solvent used in a wide range substances (both edible and not) for sealing in moisture and for sweetening. Some substances that use propylene glycol include:

  • Cosmetics
  • Soap
  • e-cigarette liquid
  • Toothpaste
  • Packaged foods
  • Body washes
  • Lotions
  • Creams

Despite its presence in a large number of domestic products which are either ingested, inhaled, or applied to one’s skin, propylene glycol remains in the database of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.


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photo from the ATSDR website

aha75pxIconPropylene Glycol can be in anything from your makeup to your packaged food



It seems paradoxical that something registered under the toxic substance database is also a prominent ingredient in some of our beloved ice cream. However, both the FDA and CDC have deemed propylene glycol safe for use as long as the amount is regulated.

According to the EPA (pdf), propylene glycol can be ingested at about 50g per kg in both people and animals to no examined detriment. If ingestion or exposure exceeds these predetermined amounts, however, propylene glycol may cause a host of potentially lethal consequences, including damage to:

  • The skin
  • Urinary tract and kidneys
  • Respiratory system

As highlighted above, the FDA and American regulators have deemed that propylene glycol is “generally recognized as safe.” Their European counterparts on the other hand feel much different.

European policy makers are far less lax when it comes to the inclusion of antifreeze related chemicals in their drink and foodstuffs, allowing just under 1g of propylene glycol per kg in any given product.

The takeaway

Propylene glycol will be a part of many American products for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean you have to voluntarily ingest it. If you’re offput by propylene glycol, below is a list from the Environmental Working Group which highlights some products to inspect during your next shopping trip.

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