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Have you ever been reading the back of a product – maybe shampoo, or hand soap, and seen the word glycerin? A lot of us see the word, recognize it as something we’ve seen before, or maybe heard thrown around in a science class or health forum, but don’t really know what it means…let alone if it’s vegan or not!
So, is glycerin vegan? Even if it is, should we be eating it? We’re going to dive into that, and a lot more, in this article!
So what is glycerin anyway?
What is glycerin, actually? Well it’s a common ingredient in soap, but it’s also added to a lot of foods in order to stabilize them or control their moisture level.
Glycerin is another name for glycerol. It’s a thick compound made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and it is technically a sugar alcohol. Glycerol does not occur in nature on its own – it’s a part of a larger molecule, called a triglyceride. (You may have heard triglycerides mentioned at the doctor’s office.)
To break the triglyceride down into glycerin, the original fat is saponified with sodium hydroxide. This reduces it to glycerine. Soap is also a product of this reaction. The triglycerides that are used for this reaction are usually found in vegetable sources, like soybeans or palm, but they can also be sourced from animal tallow.
Nowadays, most glycerin is manufactured from vegetable sources, although it can also be manufactured from petroleum oils.
What is glycerin used for?
Glycerin is used in the cosmetic, food, paper, and pharmaceutical industries. Due to its thick and sweet nature, and the humectant properties it has, glycerin is very versatile.
Glycerin is often used in the paper industry to reduce shrinkage during paper manufacturing, as well as in the cosmetic industry as a moisturizing ingredient. For this reason you can find glycerin in a variety of lip balms, lotions, and makeup (check out our vegan chapstick and cruelty-free makeup brush set articles, btw!). This also makes it a prevalent ingredient in many soaps and shampoos, including naturally based products.
Glycerin is also very useful in the medical and pharmaceutical fields. It is a prominent ingredient in many treatments, including the treatments of eye glaucoma and angina.
Check out this video to find out a little more about specifically cosmetic glycerin:
In the food industry in particular, glycerin is often added to processed foods in order to moisten them or keep them tender. It can also be used as a thickener or sweetener. For this reason you’ll often find glycerin listed as an ingredient in foods such as dairy products, processed vegetables, grains and baked goods, beverages, and sauces.
Glycerol: A green solvent
Glycerol is the correct term for glycerin, and it has been gaining a good reputation recently in green chemistry spaces. Green chemistry is a scientific movement that seeks to lower the environmental impact of teaching and practicing chemistry, while also keeping the laboratory safe and efficient.
So, why the good rep? Glycerol is what’s known as a “green solvent”. Solvents are used in chemistry to provide a liquid environment for certain chemical reactions to take place in. Glycerol is considered a green solvent for a few reasons. It’s non-toxic, first of all, which is a big deal in the chemistry world. This also means that the glycerol, once it has been used, can be disposed of without having to go through a bunch of hazardous material protocol.
Glycerol is also considered “green” because of its low environmental impact, and its high availability, since it can be a natural byproduct of biodiesel fuel production (i.e. nobody is going out of their way to make extra for chemistry purposes.) This would be an example of a synthetically derived glycerin – most food grade glycerin is derived from vegetable oils.
Now that we’ve covered a little bit about what glycerin is, and what it’s used for, it’s time to tackle the question at hand:
So, is glycerin vegan? And should we be eating it anyway?
As we talked about before, glycerin can be derived from three different types of sources – animal, plant, or synthetic. In most cases, there isn’t a good way to tell if glycerin is vegan or not.
A 2010 report from the Vegetarian Resource Group found that most glycerin used as a food additive is vegetable derived. Unfortunately, however, that’s not a guarantee. Some manufacturers will list vegetable glycerin on the ingredients label, signifying that this glycerin is veggie-friendly.
That said, if just plain old glycerin is listed, that doesn’t mean that the glycerin isn’t veg, it just means that you have no way to tell. When in doubt, you can always contact the company! A lot of businesses will be receptive to questions about their product, so don’t be shy.
It is important to note, however, that firms may switch up where their glycerin is sourced just depending on what’s available. So, when in doubt, ask! (Note: Glycerin is not the same as glyceride. Glycerides used in food tend to be animal derived.)
This brings us to our next question – should we even be eating glycerin anyway?
Generally speaking, glycerin is a safe food additive and sweetener – like other sugar alcohols, it can cause diarrhea if consumed in excess amounts, but unless you’re chugging glycerin by the gallon that shouldn’t happen.
One thing to think about though is that if a food contains glycerin, that usually means it is either packaged or processed. In the twenty-first century, with all of our crazy busy lives, it can be hard to avoid eating convenience foods. Yet couldn’t we all benefit from reducing our intake of such products?
Fresh, whole, unprocessed foods will never contain glycerin, which means one less thing for you to worry about! Plus they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, and other yummy plant compounds that your body thrives on.
Ok, so we covered a lot of ground in this article. Thank you for sticking with me through all the scientific jargon and definitions!
First of all we talked about what glycerin actually is – a sugar alcohol that is derived from a fatty acid during a process called saponification (a detailed explanation of that process can be found here.)
Food-grade glycerin is usually vegetable-derived, but it can also be derived from animal or synthetic sources. Glycerin is usually used as a moisturizing agent, whether in cosmetics or in food. It’s also important in the medical and scientific communities.
Finally, the big Q: is glycerin vegan? We decided – usually, yes, but it’s always better to check with the company. Best of all would be to forgo as many processed foods as possible and just stick with what Mother Nature gives us! She usually knows best, right?
Have any thoughts, questions, or ideas about glycerin? As always, I would love to hear them! Leave them in the comments section below.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa Williams is a committed vegan, passionate animal welfare advocate, and keen follower of too many v-friendly food blogs to mention.
She started happyhappyvegan.com back in 2016 because she felt there was a need for more straightforward information on plant-based living. Back then, too many sites seem to either concentrate solely on recipes or be too intimidating or inaccessible for the v-curious and she wanted to change that. The landscape is certainly a whole lot different now!
Lisa lives in Sussex with her husband and their three-legged wonder dog, Mable.