What Are Monoglycerides and Are They Safe to Consume?

Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT on August 11, 2017Written by Carly Vandergriendt on August 11, 2017

Overview

If you’ve been keeping an eye on your cholesterol levels or blood pressure, you might also be monitoring your triglyceride levels. Triglycerides aren’t the only glyceride out there, however. If you’ve ever noticed monoglycerides or diglycerides listed on food labels, you might be wondering whether you need to worry about them, too.

Continue reading to learn more.

What are monoglycerides?

All glycerides consist of a glycerol molecule and one or more fatty acid chains:

  • monoglycerides have one fatty acid chain
  • diglycerides have two fatty acid chains
  • triglycerides have three fatty acid chains

According to an evaluation by the World Health Organization (WHO), mono- and diglycerides make up approximately 1 percent of the glycerides you consume. They occur naturally in certain oils and are also found in processed foods.

Most of the fats you eat, including plant-based oils and animal fats, are made up of triglycerides. Triglycerides play an important role in heart health. Doctors usually check triglyceride levels during routine cholesterol tests.

Did you know?

Enzymes in your body break triglycerides down into mono- and diglycerides during digestion. When mono- and diglycerides enter the bloodstream, they are transformed back into triglycerides.

Where to find them on food labels

Mono- and diglycerides are emulsifiers, which means they help oil and water to blend. As a result, they’re commonly used as food additives. Small quantities are often added to packaged and frozen foods to improve texture and stability, prevent oil from separating, and extend shelf life.

You’ll find mono- and diglycerides on the ingredient lists of packaged and processed foods. They may go by other names, including:

  • distilled mono- and diglycerides
  • ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides
  • mono- and diglyceride esters
  • diacylglycerol oil

Which foods contain monoglycerides?

Mono- and diglycerides can be found in processed foods such as:

  • bread
  • tortillas
  • baked goods
  • nut butters
  • margarine
  • shortening
  • mayonnaise
  • coffee creamers
  • frozen dinners
  • ice cream
  • frosting
  • whipped topping
  • candy
  • soft drinks
  • chewing gum
  • some processed meats and meat substitutes

Grocery store aisles aren’t the only place you’ll find these additives. Fast food chains and restaurants also serve menu items containing mono- and diglycerides. Common sources include:

  • margarine used for cooking
  • bread
  • breadsticks
  • buns
  • croissants
  • biscuits
  • tortillas
  • fries
  • ice cream
  • milkshakes
  • frappes

What do they do?

Mono- and diglycerides help oil and water to blend. Because of this, they can be used to improve the texture or consistency of foods. For example, they help:

  • improve the consistency of margarine
  • prevent the oil in peanut butter from separating
  • give ice cream a creamier consistency
  • reduce stickiness in candy

In processed meats and sausages, they help to ensure fat is well-distributed.

They’re added to baked goods to slow the staling process. They also improve texture, ensuring bread is doughy and elastic.

How are monoglycerides made?

Trace amounts of both mono- and diglycerides are naturally present in some seed-based oils, such as:

  • olive oil
  • grapeseed oil
  • cottonseed oil

Concentrations are low so they are difficult to isolate. Because of that, mono- and diglycerides are sourced through a chemical reaction that begins with a triglyceride-containing animal fat or vegetable oil. With the addition of heat and an alkaline catalyst, triglycerides rearrange into mono- and diglycerides. The result is a substance that contains a random mixture of mono-, di-, and triglycerides.

Next, mono- and diglycerides are separated through distillation. They may undergo further processing before they are added to your food.

Do monoglycerides contain trans fat?

The consumption of trans fat has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, avoiding artificial trans fat consumption could prevent between 3,000 and 7,000 heart disease-related deaths in the United States each year. Learn more about good fats, bad fats, and heart disease.

Since 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been taking steps to remove artificial trans fat from all foods. This includes a ban, announced in 2015, on partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). PHOs are the most ubiquitous source of trans fat in food. Food manufacturers have until 2018 to remove all trans fat from their products.

Mono- and diglycerides contain small amounts of trans fat. They’re classified as emulsifiers and not lipids, so the FDA ban doesn’t apply to them. As trans fat is phased out, food companies may turn to mono- and diglycerides as low-cost alternatives.

Is there a health risk to eating monoglycerides?

According to the FDA, mono- and diglycerides are generally recognized as safe. They can be used in food without limitation, provided the manufacturing process is satisfactory.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest also describes them as safe, while a WHO report indicates that there are no harmful effects associated with their consumption.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re good for you. Currently, there’s no way of knowing how much trans fat is in products with mono- and diglycerides listed on the label.

Food products with mono- and diglycerides are also likely to be high in other fats, as well as refined sugar and flour.

Who should avoid them?

Vegans and vegetarians may want to avoid mono- and diglycerides sourced from animal fat. People with religious dietary restrictions may also want to avoid mono- and diglycerides sourced from animal fats such as pork or beef.

It’s impossible to know whether the monoglycerides in a product have been sourced from animal fat simply by reading the ingredient list. If you want to find out, you should contact the manufacturer. The alternative is to avoid all products with these types of fats listed on the label.

Takeaway

Fat is an important nutrient, but not all fats are the same. Monoglycerides are generally considered safe, but you should still limit your intake. They’re commonly found in processed foods, so choose whole foods, like fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes, or unprocessed meats, whenever possible. That will help reduce your intake of these fats.

Q&A: Recommended amounts of monoglycerides

Q:

How much monoglycerides should I eat, or should I avoid them completely?

A:

Monoglyceride concentrations are very low (less than 1 percent of all fats) when they occur naturally in foods and should do no harm. They can form when palm oils are brought to a high temperature and your body breaks triglycerides down to monoglycerides.

Margarine, breads, tortillas, and other processed foods have much higher levels of this food additive. If you eat any processed foods, monoglycerides are difficult to escape. If you want to avoid them, choose whole foods and unprocessed foods. If you don’t mind stirring your peanut butter before use, then choose products that have no additives or make these foods yourself.

Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHTAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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