By Jeanne Yacoubou, MS
VRG Research Director
Glycerol, (also known as glycerin or glycerine), is a common ingredient or common starting material of other ingredients found in many foods and personal care products. When fat molecules, such as triglycerides, are broken down in a chemical reaction, glycerol is formed. Animal fats (e.g., beef tallow) or vegetable oils are the common starting materials for glycerin formation.
The VRG wanted to determine how much of the commercial production of glycerol today is from animal fats. We contacted Cargill, a leading glycerin manufacturer, in July 2012. We spoke with a senior employee in the Dressings, Sauces, and Oils division. We were told that “…ever since the 1950s, when animal-based sources were becoming less popular, vegetable oils have been used to produce the vast majority of glycerol today…In the last thirty years, palm oil from Indonesia has become a common source today…Personal care products may still use tallow but it’s small, too, today.”
A glycerin product manager at Cargill provided some data to support the general trends noted above. He wrote in a July 2012 email that “[T]otal glycerin usage in the United States is about 45 million lbs. per month. Approximately 30% is non-kosher tallow-based and 70% would be vegetable-based. That includes imports of vegetable-based glycerol and all the glycerin made here in the United States.”
Mono- and diglycerides, used in most breads and baked goods as well as in a wide variety of other foods, are formed by chemically joining glycerol to fatty acids found in animal fats or vegetable oils. The mono-and diglycerides principally act as emulsifiers, preventing breads and baked goods from crumbling or going stale, and/or keeping oil and water components of a food together (e.g., in salad dressings). Based on the data given above, the percentage of vegetable oil-sourced mono- and diglycerides commercially used today in the United States is also approximately 70%. Collected data from other sources are in agreement with this estimation (see our Guide to Food Ingredients).
Glycerol also has many industrial uses. There is renewed interest in it as an antifreeze component because it is a renewable resource unlike other common antifreeze components. http://www.astmnewsroom.org/default.aspx?pageid=2115&year=2010&category=Standards%2FTechnical
Glycerin is a by-product of biodiesel production. This “waste glycerin,” (and, to a lesser extent, that produced from used cooking oil, which is increasingly being used as a biofuel today), has greatly increased the supply of glycerin in the market. Much work is currently being done on ways to produce biofuels from waste glycerol. See, for example: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070626115246.htm, http://www.environmental-expert.com/news/is-glycerine-primed-to-end-fossil-fuel-domination-250532, and http://www.asme.org/kb/news—articles/articles/renewable-energy/waste-not-used-cooking-oil-energy-source
To purchase our Guide to Food Ingredients, please visit: http://www.vrg.org/ingredients
The contents of this article, our website, and our other publications, including the Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient information from company employees or company statements. Information does change and mistakes are always possible. Please use your own best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. Further research or confirmation may be warranted.
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