How Safe Are Monoglycerides?

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Do you generally look at food labels to figure out the content of monoglycerides contained in them? If your answer is yes, then this article is for you. Glycerides, in general, are always in the limelight for being associated with cardiovascular disorders. So, your point of concern is a valid one.

Monoglycerides are safe when consumed wisely within limits. But if you have a history of circulatory conditions, or a genetic tendency to develop them, then you should likely stay away from the synthetic monoglycerides generally found in processed foods. 

There is nothing in nature that comes without benefits, and monoglycerides are no exception to this rule. However, it’s extremely essential to figure out the sources from which they make their way into our everyday diets. 

So don’t fret over it much and read further to get clarity on this much-discussed topic.  

Overview

What are monoglycerides?

The word monoglycerides is a combination of two words ‘mono’, meaning one, and ‘glycerides’, implying that it contains glycerol. They are formed by the addition of one fatty acid chain to glycerol. They have two other counterparts in their family of glycerides; diglycerides and triglycerides, which consist of two and three fatty acid chains attached with one molecule of glycerol, respectively. They can come from both natural and synthetic sources. 

Monoglycerides, in low quantities, are generally used as emulsifiers and stabilizers in food products. As emulsifiers, their role is to prevent the separation of oil and water. By doing so, they not only enhance the product quality but also its shelf-life. They are also added as stabilizers to increase the stability of processed food products. They can be found in tortillas, bread, baked products, mayonnaise, vegetable butter, dough softeners, coffee creamers, frozen foods, ice cream, whipped topping, candy, soft beverages, a few meat alternatives, fries, milkshakes, and processed meats. The most commonly used monoglycerides in food products are glycerol monostearate (emulsifier, thickening agent, and preservative) and monolaurin (food additive in ice cream, margarine, and spaghetti). 

Since some oils have low concentrations of mono- and diglycerides, they must be produced industrially to meet the needs of the flourishing food industry. They are created through the glycerolysis (using glycerol) of fats and oils like soybean, canola, cottonseed, sunflower, and coconut or palm oil. The primary fatty acids used to create mono- and diglycerides from these lipids and oils are lauric, linoleic, myristic, oleic, palmitic, and stearic acids. High temperatures and an alkaline catalyst are used in the manufacturing process to combine mono-, di-, and triglycerides with a small quantity of glycerol. Distillation techniques can be used to separate monoglycerides from this mixture, which can then be further processed to give the ingredient more utility in a recipe.1

Some of the types of monoglycerides are listed below:

  • Distilled monoglycerides (DMG/ Glycerol monostearate)
  • Citric acid esters of monoglycerides
  • Acetic acid esters of monoglycerides
  • Ethoxylated monoglycerides
  • Lactic acid esters of monoglycerides
  • Diacetyl Tartaric esters of monoglycerides

Safety of monoglycerides

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), they have been given the GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status. However, they are under scrutiny as they contain trans fat, and trans fat has been banned by the US FDA. Because the exact amount of trans fat that can be obtained from monoglycerides is not known, hence the potential health risk that it may pose cannot be overruled. Moreover, as fats are generally deemed to be triglycerides, the numbers listed on nutritional labels for total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat do not include those found in mono- and diglycerides.

There have been some studies that have tried to bring forth the safety profile of monoglycerides. The mono- and diglycerides that contain long-chain saturated fatty acids, particularly stearic acid, are those that are most likely to have negative impacts. Long-term animal studies have reported that an increase in liver weight is a common occurrence in animals getting high-fat diets and is not thought to have any toxicological relevance. These studies contribute valuable information to the existing body of knowledge about glycerides.2

Monoglycerides are fatty in nature and consuming too many of them may not be good for your health in general. A lot of monoglyceride-containing foods are rich in saturated and trans fats. Trans fats are not unhealthy if consumed in moderation, but excessive consumption has been associated with an increased chance of coronary heart disease and stroke. They have been related to diabetes, obesity, and the promotion of inflammatory responses in the body. In addition to this, during the manufacturing process, monoglyceride combinations may become contaminated with small quantities of toxins, which could result in a number of illnesses.

Benefits of monoglycerides

In the food processing business, monoglycerides are used extensively to stabilise emulsions of water in oil and oil in water. Foods like peanut butter, coffee creamers, margarine, and mayonnaise that would gradually separate visibly without the use of mono- and diglycerides can be stabilized by their addition. When a mono- or diglyceride is added to the recipe, air-in-liquid emulsions, like cake batter or ice cream, rapidly create and stabilize air pockets. They also help in reducing crystallization in food products. 

The food industry benefits a lot from the use of monoglycerides. Any ingredient that can work for the stability enhancement of food products can be quite instrumental in increasing the production yield, profit, customer satisfaction, and shelf-life. This might be one of the reasons why there has been a continuous use of monoglycerides in the food industry despite some concerns being raised about their health detrimental effects. 

On the bright side, there is substantial evidence demonstrating the safety of mono- and diglycerides for use as food additives. The regulatory authorities around the world consider them safe as their use does not pose any immediate side effects to human health. That is why their quantitative limit of addition to foods has not been set. They are, in fact, also produced in the body by the hydrolysis of triglycerides. As natural antibiotics and immune system modulators, the medium-chain fatty acids and monoglycerides, which are mainly found in coconut oil, have miraculous healing properties. When coconut oil is ingested or applied topically, it breaks down to produce monolaurin and lauric acid, two substances that are known to be anti-microbial.3

How to limit your intake

Mono- and diglycerides make up about 1% of the glycerides you eat, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) analysis. Common sources of monoglycerides include processed food, bakery products, frozen foods, peanut butter, chocolate, and some natural oils. There is no specific recommended daily intake that has been proposed by the experts, but a regular check on their quantity can still be kept by limiting the intake of too many processed items. As their replacement, fresh fruits, vegetables, unprocessed meats, and legumes should be preferred.

Summary

While too much reliance on packaged and processed foods may predispose you to their side effects, monoglycerides are safe when consumed in moderation. Hence, it is very essential to make informed choices. So, the next time you flip any food product to look at the label and the monoglycerides content in it, remember that they are not harmful within limits.

References

  1. Frank J. Mono and diglycerides in food products [Internet]. Prospector Knowledge Center. 2021 [cited 2023 Mar 26]. Available from: https://knowledge.ulprospector.com/511/mono-diglycerides-2/
  2. 301. Mono- and diglycerides (WHO food additives series 5) [Internet]. [cited 2023 Mar 26]. Available from: https://inchem.org/documents/jecfa/jecmono/v05je44.htm#:~:text=No%20harmful%20effects%20have%20been,in%20long%2Dterm%20animal%20studies.
  3. Journal of the association of physicians of india - japi [Internet]. [cited 2023 Mar 26]. Available from: https://japi.org/w2f4d4b4/coconut-oil-and-immunity-what-do-we-really-know-about-it-so-far

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Vridhi Sachdeva

Master of Pharmacy- MPharm, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India

Vridhi is a Formulation Scientist with experience in the Research & Development sector of the pharmaceutical industry. She works on novel drug delivery systems to enhance active pharmaceutical ingredients' therapeutic potential and reduce the associated side effects. Her collective passion for improving the health of people and writing has led her to write and edit science and health-related articles.

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