Understanding Mono- and Diglycerides
They are everywhere: in our bread, ice creams, peanut butter, salad dressings, margarines, frozen desserts, bakery products, beverages, sauces, syrups, and drink mixes.
What are these elusive ingredients, why are they in our food, and should we worry about whether or not they are halal?
“Made in part of fatty acids, they [mono- and diglycerides] are similar to triglycerides, which are the predominant fat in food,” says Dr. Javed Rashid, IFANCA halal auditor and a food scientist, “except they are classified as emulsifiers rather than fats.”
To understand what emulsifiers are and why they are added to commercially-produced food items, let us first consider what happens when we add water to oil or oil to water. If you have ever seen this being done, you know that the two liquids tend to separate out and form two distinct layers, with the oil layer on top and the water layer on the bottom.
The same thing happens when batter that contains both oil and water is left to stand for a long time: the oil and water components separate and the look of the batter changes from a smooth, homogenous mixture to a not-so-smooth-looking concoction.
That is where emulsifiers like mono- and diglycerides come in.
An emulsifier is a substance that is made up of two parts: a water-soluble (hydrophilic) component as well as an oil-soluble (lipophilic) component.
This allows the emulsifier to settle in between the oil and water. It is here that it interacts with both liquids in the mixture and prevents them from separating from each other.
An emulsifier can act in a similar fashion even when added to two non-liquid substances that do not mix easily, such as air bubbles in whipped cream or cake batter, ice crystals in ice cream, and sugar crystals in chocolate.
Emulsifiers, specifically mono- and diglycerides, also interact with other ingredients during food manufacturing and processing in different ways, which adds to their functionality.
Ever wonder why commercially-manufactured bread does not become stale as quickly as home-made bread? The mono- and diglycerides added to the dough interacts with the starch in the bread, preventing it from going bad and prolonging its shelf life.
Amazed by the quality of store-bought yeast-raised dough? Smooth ice cream? Margarine that does not separate? Yes, that’s mono- and diglycerides at work again.
“The commercial source [for mono- and diglycerides] may be either animal (cow- or pig-derived) or vegetable (derived primarily from soybean and canola oil). They may also be synthetically produced,” says Dr. Rashid.
According to The Vegetarian Resource Group’s Guide to Food Ingredients, mono- and diglycerides may be non-vegetarian but are “typically vegan.” An item is considered vegan when not only is it plant-based but it also does not contain any animal-derived products or by-products.
So how do we know whether a particular food item containing mono- and diglycerides is halal or not?
The easy answer: look for the Crescent-M symbol on the package, which means it is IFANCA halal-certified.
However, if the product is not certified halal, or the ingredient list does not specify the source of the mono- and diglycerides, contact the product manufacturer to be sure. If the company informs you that the mono- and diglycerides are animal-derived, then it is likely not halal. You might suggest they consider switching to a vegetable source to accommodate a larger consumer base. And it would be even better if they obtained halal certification. Do not underestimate your power to make a difference as a consumer.
Humaira Khan is a doctor with a postdoctoral fellowship in neurogenetics and a diploma in freelance and feature writing. Her interests are Quranic studies, reading, and creative writing.