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Propylene Glycol in Cake

Propylene glycol — the very same ingredient in antifreeze and aircraft de-icer now found in cake!


The other day, I had a piece of cake at a friend's. It was tasteless — none of the rich, buttery, vanilla flavor you'd expect from a pound cake or any of the normal pound cake texture — just empty, artificial flavor and texture.

I asked her where she got it. She picked it up at Walmart 'cause she didn't have time to bake.

What could be responsible for the lack of flavor, yet odd texture, I wondered? She still had the container, so I thought I'd take a look.

It was called "Old Fashioned Half Round Pound Cake." But when I read the ingredients, I found out there was nothing "old fashioned" about this pound cake! Especially when I saw propylene glycol on the list.


Propylene glycol? The same substance found in antifreeze, floor wax, de-icing solutions for cars, airplanes, and boats? The working fluid in hydraulic presses and solvent paints and plastics?

Right. The same.

I knew propylene glycol is used widely in personal care products and cosmetics, but finding it in cake surprised me. How unnerving to realize I ate a solvent and anti-freeze ingredient!

They must be putting into cakes because, being a humectant, it keeps food moist for a long, long time. It helps retain moisture content and prevents things from drying out... like cosmetics, baby wipes, paintball paint, processed foods and pet food (that's why those doggy bones stay so nice and chewy).

Moistness was the only thing that Wal-Mart cake had going for it. Taste certainly did not enter into the equation. It comes down to, "Do you like your cardboard dry or would you prefer it moist?"

But is propylene glycol really safe to eat?

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined propylene glycol to be "generally recognized as safe" for use in food, cosmetics, and medicines. The Material Safety Data Sheet reveals a different story:

Implicated in contact dermatitis, kidney damage and liver abnormalities; can inhabit skin cell growth in human tests and can damage cell membranes causing rashes, dry skin and surface damage.
  — Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)

May be harmful by inhalation, ingestion or skin absorption.
May cause eye irritation, skin irritation. Exposure can cause gastrointestinal disturbances, nausea, headache and vomiting, central nervous system depression.
  — Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)

The American Academy of Dermatologists notes:

A published clinical review showed propylene glycol causes a significant number of reactions and was primary irritant to the skin even in low levels of concentrations.
  — The American Academy of Dermatologists, Jan. 1991

Propylene Glycol is also used in fog machines in ballet and theatre productions. Having spent time on the stage, I've know more than one ballerina who was forced to retire after becoming ill from inhaling stage "fog." Why would I want to eat something like that?

There are foods that are know to be unhealthy, like chocolate and ice cream, that I indulge in occasionally for the sheer gustatory delight. When the food is sinfully good, a little indulgence can be forgiven.

But when an additive makes a food tasteless AND it happens to be a harmful irritant that can make you ill, why would you want to ever eat it again?

The recipe for old-fashioned poundcake used to be: one pound of butter, one pound of flour, one pound of sugar and one pound of eggs. Now it's one pound of propylene glycol added to a pound or two of other artificial ingredients.

Umm, nothing like tasteless chemicals by the pound bringing on illness by the truckload!

Rufina James

propylene-glycol-cake-label Full label

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