Glycerin in Today’s World

Photo by Artem Zhushman from FreeImages

Question
#1:

“In
what types of food products is glycerin used?”

Question
#2:

“Is
glycerin kosher?”

Question
#3:

“What
is the difference between glycerin, glycerine, and glycerol?”

Question
#4:

“The other day, I was using some vanilla extract in a recipe and noticed that the extract itself had a sweet taste. I know that vanilla is usually extracted with alcohol, but this particular product was labeled “alcohol-free,” and apparently used glycerin instead.I am curious about the nutritional properties of glycerin. Does it affect the body like sugar? Is it calorie-free?”

Introduction:

Glycerin comes from fats
(either animal, vegetable or mineral) and originally was a by-product of soap or
candle manufacture. The process of producing soap has not changed significantly
since it was first discovered thousands of years ago. The method is very
similar to that described by the halachic authorities, who refer to a
process of cooking fat and ashes together. Today, we call these ashes lye,
and it usually consists predominantly of sodium hydroxide or potassium
hydroxide, both alkalis. Cooking these together with fat creates a chemical
reaction called saponification, from the Latin
word sapo, meaning soap. The process converts the fat and alkali
into soap and an alcohol such as glycerin. The glycerin splits off from the
fatty acids and mixes together with water, forming an odorless, sweet-tasting,
syrup-like liquid.

Glycerin is also created naturally in the process of
manufacturing some alcoholic beverages. It can also be produced chemically from
petroleum, but, in the United States, glycerin from petroleum is not
generally used in food.

Properties of glycerin

Glycerin, sometimes spelled glycerine, and sometimes
called glycerol, has a number of interesting properties. Mixing glycerin
with nitric acid creates nitroglycerine, which can be used to treat chest pain
or to blow up mountains or enemies. Glycerin attracts water like a sponge,
making it useful for skin care, since adding it to a lotion or cosmetic will
help your skin remain moist. It is also commonly added to soaps, candles,
deodorants and makeup. You might find glycerin in toothpaste, which will help
prevent drying out or hardening in the tube.

Glycerin is a common ingredient in
pharmaceuticals, including heart medication, suppositories, cough remedies and
anesthetics. For example, it allows the medicinal agent in the cough syrup to
coat the throat of the patient. Since glycerin is water based, it is very
useful for this application. In addition, glycerin’s sweetness may mask the
distaste of the anti-cough agent, thus making the syrup smoother and tastier.
Mixed into wax and used as a suppository, glycerin’s moisture-attracting
properties draws water from the body into the colon, which stimulates a bowel
movement.

Athletics and glycerin

Athletes run a constant concern about
dehydration, and drinking large quantities of water or sports drinks usually
results in quickly losing a sizable portion of the fluid through urination. One
still-being-researched suggestion is to add a tiny amount of glycerin to water
drunk before exercise. Some contend that this increases fluid retention
considerably.

Food uses of glycerin

Since glycerin absorbs moisture, it may keep a product
moist for a longer period of time. Thus, it is useful as a safe preservative,
and, has a marketing advantage that it does not to be listed as a preservative.
Used in a product like a cereal bar, glycerin helps it avoid becoming hard and
brittle. When used to coat raisins, glycerin keeps them from sticking to one
another. Since glycerin has a syrupy texture, it may be used in a glaze or as a
thickener. Since it coats the throat, it is sometimes used as an ingredient in
whiskeys.

Glycerin is often added to foods to help
oil-based and water-based ingredients mix. It can be used to prevent ice
crystals from forming in frozen foods, such as frozen yogurt,
ice cream and other desserts.

Is glycerin used as a sweetener?

Who would expect that a processed derivative of oils or
fats would be sweet? Glycerin’s sweetness is one of the great, low-key gifts
that Hashem bestows on us. Because it is sweet, baked goods, confections, and
pharmaceuticals sometimes have glycerin incorporated into their formulas.
However, glycerin, unlike sugar, is not a classic carbohydrate. For this
reason, companies eager to make low-carb claims use glycerin, sometimes as a
substitute for sugar, but it also has many other valuable properties.

Glycerin
belongs to a special category of carbohydrates called polyols. A polyol is
an organic compound containing multiple hydroxyl groups, meaning that its
chemical description includes an OH, because it contains an oxygen atom bonded
to a hydrogen atom. Polyols are low-calorie sugar replacers with a
clean, sweet taste and are approved for food. Among the polyols that we eat
are: erythritol, hydrogenated starch, hydrolysates,
isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol.
Erythritol, chemical formulaC4H10O4,
for example, is a sugar alcohol that is considered safe as a food
additive in the United States and throughout much of the world. It was
discovered in 1848 by Scottish chemist John Stenhouse, and was first isolated
in 1852. It occurs naturally in some fruits. When used to replace
sugar, polyols cause smaller increases
in blood glucose and insulin levels than do sugars and
other carbohydrates. Therefore, snacks sweetened with polyols may be useful.

Like sugar alcohols, glycerin tastes sweet, but it is not
metabolized as sugar in the body, and doesn’t cause a rise in blood sugar. For
that reason, it is sometimes used as a sweetener in foods marketed to diabetics
and low-carb dieters.

Kashrus of glycerin

Glycerin is perhaps the most kosher-sensitive ingredient
that any company can have. There is no way to test chemically whether the
glycerin is manufactured from an animal, vegetable or mineral source, and
non-kosher glycerin produced from animal fat is plentiful and often less
expensive than are the other varieties. To compound the problem, as bio-diesel
and other processes using vegetable oil have increased, less vegetable oil is
available for the production of glycerin and this is being replaced by
increasing the amount of animal fat used to manufacture glycerin.

Kosher glycerin is generally
derived from vegetable oil, although it can also be chemically synthesized from
petroleum. It is claimed that vegetable glycerin was originally discovered
accidentally more than two centuries ago, by heating a mixture of olive oil and
lead monoxide. But it became economically and industrially significant only in
the late 1800s, when it was first used to make dynamite. Until that point, all
glycerin was manufactured from animal fat.

Much of the kosher,
vegetable-based glycerin is made from
triglyceride-rich vegetable fats, such as palm, soy or coconut oil,
and usually comes from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia that have an
abundance of coconut and palm trees, although some kosher vegetable glycerin is
made in the United States. Supervisors of kosher glycerin production need to
oversee that the equipment used to produce it and the trucks and ships used to
ship it in bulk are used only for kosher product or are koshered before use.

As with almost any
substance, a small number of people have sensitivities or allergies
to glycerin, and it can be toxic, if consumed in sufficient
quantities. But, in its typical food uses, predominantly as a safe method of
keeping foods fresh or as a low-glycemic sweetener, glycerin is
generally safe. It is not, however, calorie-free.

This entire preamble was to provide background to an event
that happened when I made a random kosher inspection of a factory several years
ago. The company, which we will call Quality Bakery Products, was a
manufacturer of wholesale products for the bakery and dairy industries, such as
fruit mixes and toppings, glazes, maraschino cherries, fudges, etc. Thus, the
fruit flavors in your yogurt, the fudge on your cookies, the fruit mixes in
your fruit cakes may have originated in this factory. They did not produce
retail sizes; everything was packed only in gallons, tubs and drums.

On that particular visit, I discovered a partially used
drum of glycerin, without kosher markings. Glycerin was not a product that the
company ordinarily used in their products and was not listed as an approved raw
material by the hechsher. I was fairly certain that this glycerin was
from non-kosher animal sources, and indeed, a small amount of research proved
that I was correct. Since glycerin has a sweet taste and was certainly not bateil,
the product or products manufactured with this glycerin were unquestionably
treif
.

Why did the company order glycerin? In what was it used?
And where was it sent?

Within a short period of time, I was able to unravel what
had happened. A new customer, a donut manufacturer that we will call “Diamond
Donuts,” contacted Quality Bakery with a large order for a donut glaze. Diamond
Donuts had very specific requirements for the glaze – including glycerin as an
ingredient. Presumably, Diamond Donut wanted glycerin in its glaze because it
is sweet, syrupy and keeps the donuts fresher without any requirement to
mention the nasty word “preservatives” on the label.

The sales staff accepted the order, the manufacturing
department placed it on the schedule, sending on to the purchasing department
the ingredient requirements that were not in house. The glycerin was ordered.
No one at Quality Bakery picked up on several obvious errors they had made. For
example, they were required by contract to contact the hechsher before
purchasing new raw materials or changing suppliers, and glycerin was not an
ingredient listed on their approved list.

The distributor through whom they ordered the glycerin sent
them the least expensive product he had in stock, which happened to have been
animal-derived glycerin. The ingredient was used, an entire container of drums
of glaze was produced and was on the highway to Diamond Donuts by the time I
discovered the problem. I was able to contact the rabbis at both hechsherim,
Quality Bakery and Diamond, and the mashgiach who handled Diamond
Donuts, to alert them that the glaze marked kosher was indeed very treif.
The glaze and the leftover drum of glycerin were both destroyed, and many, many
neshamos were fortunately saved from mistakenly eating treif donuts.

What is the moral of the story? For one, that hechsherim
should have tighter controls on their companies. There should be a system
in place so that new raw materials are not used without having the mashgiach
sign off that they have been checked for kashrus concerns, just as these
materials are checked for safety and efficacy.

For another, they should make sure that all key personnel
at their companies fully understand the reasons for, and the details of, their
kosher program. Included in the granting of the hechsher should be a
periodic, scheduled meeting with all decision-making plant personnel, including
the plant manager, production managers, purchasing agents, and the quality
assurance staff, to guarantee that they all understand the responsibilities of
a kashrus program.

And that we should all daven daily that we do not
eat anything non-kosher.