What is glycerol and is it safe to consume?

Image shows plastic cup containing very colourful, iced slushy drink with a yellow straw sitting on a wooden table
Photo by Natalia Marcelewicz on Unsplash

What is glycerol?

Glycerol is an ingredient that is added to some food and drink, to keep products moist, preserve them, to change their texture or to sweeten them. Glycerin (or glycerine) is a very closely related ingredient.

It is also widely used in pharmaceuticals – for instance in cough syrups and topical treatments such as wound and burn creams.

Following a number of cases of glycerol intoxication in children, the FSA have issued guidelines to food manufacturers and retailers regarding levels of glycerol in food and drink and how to serve specific products.

What foods and drinks contain glycerol?

Because it is used to sweeten and to moisten, glycerol is found in a small quantities in many processed foods. Check your packet of tortilla wraps, chewing gum, cake icing or cereal bars – you can expect to find glycerol towards the bottom of the ingredients list, showing that a small amount of it has been used in that product.

The FSA has released guidelines that relate specifically to slushy drinks, because of the levels of glycerol in some of these products and the way they are sometimes consumed. In some slushie drinks, glycerol is used both to create the slushy texture and to sweeten the drink, so can appear in relatively high levels compared to other foods and drinks. It can sometimes be sold as a ‘bottomless’ drink, particularly in family orientated venues, leading to high levels of consumption over short time periods.

What age groups does glycerol pose a risk to and why?

Glycerol intoxication can happen in children aged about ten and under, causing them to develop headaches, sickness, and in extreme cases, shock, hypoglycaemia and loss of consciousness. This is because their smaller bodies cannot break glycerol down as efficiently as an adult or older child.

Because some slushy drinks contain particularly high levels of glycerol, the FSA recommends that children under 10 only consume limited amounts and are not offered free refills by retailers.

Regarding children and babies under 4, the FSA say,

“The FSA’s risk assessment considered a worst-case exposure scenario in which a child consumed a 350 ml slush drink containing the highest level of glycerol used (50,000 mg/L) and compared this to a threshold above which adverse effects could occur. Children aged 4 or below would exceed this threshold.

Their recommendations are that slushy drinks are therefore avoided for this age group.

What should food businesses do to prevent harm?

The FSA have made four recommendations to food businesses regarding slushy drinks:

  1. “Brand owners will ensure that their customers are fully aware of the FSA’s risk assessment of the use of glycerol in slush ice drinks.
  2. Brand owners will formulate products to contain glycerol at the minimum quantity technically necessary to achieve the required ‘slush’ drink effect.
  3. Brand owners will advise their customers that sales of slush ice drinks containing glycerol should be accompanied by a written warning visible at point of sale – “Product contains glycerol. Not recommended for children 4 years of age and under’”.*
  4. The business model of free refills is not recommended in venues where children under 10 years of age will consume them.”

Future guidelines on the use of glycerol may be altered accordingly if levels of the ingredient are found to have reduced significantly at future investigations by the FSA.

What help is available for parents and other consumers?

As well as the guidelines issued to food businesses, the FSA have updated their Food Additives page for consumers to include specific advice regarding glycerol. It states:

“Slush ice drinks can contain the ingredient glycerol as a substitute for sugar, at a level required to create the ‘slush’ effect. At this level, we recommend that children aged four years and under should not consume these drinks.

This is due to their potential to cause side-effects such as headaches and sickness, particularly when consumed in excess.”

About us

The Safer Food Group offer food safety training for food businesses in the UK. As food safety experts, we seek to inform our customers of the latest news, advice and guidance within the industry and help them understand the implications for their operations. For more information about The Safer Food Group training, please visit www.thesaferfoodgroup.com


* Using the FSA recommended wording, we have created free product signage for you to download


Medicines containing the active ingredient glycerol – (emc)



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