With our busy, bustling lives, it’s always tempting to choose convenience. My kids love to make quesadillas and burritos, so sure, I often keep a package of shredded Mexican cheese in the refrigerator.
If I grate my own cheese, it does tend to clump. What keeps those packaged strands of shredded cheese from sticking together? Powdered wood pulp. You’ll find it listed in the list of ingredients as “powdered cellulose.” Kraft claims that cellulose makes up less than 1% of its shredded cheese. Its purpose: to replace fat and prevent clumping by keeping cheese moist. A more natural product that is sometimes used in shredded cheese is potato starch. Even organic brands come with cellulose. For example, see the ingredients listed for Organic Valley Shredded Mozarella Cheese.
In fact, Cellulose is one of the most commonly used food additives — used to thicken or stabilize foods. It adds creaminess to low fat ice cream, non-dairy creamer or sour cream. It imparts the “mouth feel” of fat, the stickiness of salad dressing. ( See an article in the Wall Street Journal: Why Wood Pulp Makes Ice Cream Creamier.) Cellulose adds structure and firmness to baked goods, and contributes fiber to processed white bread. It is used to prevent clumping of powdered drink mixes and spice mixtures. Cellulose helps retain moisture, keeping foods from seeming dry. It is bland, tasteless and inexpensive — seemingly the perfect ingredient for the food processing industry. If you see the words “Lower fat” or “Added fiber” it’s probably got cellulose. Not just on your grocery shelves….cellulose is found in many foods at fast food restaurants.
Beyond shredded cheese, cellulose is found in crackers and cakes, pizza sauce and barbecue sauce, biscuits and cookies, maple syrup and frozen waffles. See: Fifteen Food Companies that Serve You Wood. Here’s a sampling of food products that commonly contain cellulose:
Mission Whole Wheat Torillas (ingredient list in photo to the right)
A Versatile Additive
Cellulose is nearly a miracle food for the food processing industry. Did I mention that it was cheap? Among the many functions cellulose serves:
- Fiber Supplement: Food processing removes the fiber from foods, so cellulose is used to add fiber back in to foods such as white bread or muffins.
- Calorie Reducer: Cellulose adds bulk and volume to diet foods without adding calories or fat.
- Thickener: Since cellulose is water soluble, it is used to thicken drinks and soups.
- Emulsifier: Cellulose is added to emulsify sauces, preventing water or oil from separating from the other ingredients.
- Anti-caking Agent: Cellulose prevents spices, powdered drinks and shredded cheese from sticking together.
- Filler: Cellulose serves as a replacement for more expensive ingredients, including oil, sugar, or flour.
- Foaming agent: Cellulose supports the formation of foam or air bubbles in food.
- Stabilizer: Cellulose helps maintain a uniform consistency of a food product.
- Glazing agent: Helps give food a shiny appearance or a protective coating.
- Shelf-life extender: Cellulose adds to the shelf life of many food products.
- Coating: Cellulose helps prevent oil absorption during frying.
- Control ice crystal growth: Cellulose helps maintain “a homogeneous state during freeze/thaw cycles.“
- Filler: Cellulose is used as a filler or fiber additive to meat products such as burgers or meatballs.
Not just for foods, cellulose is also used as a coating or binding agent for pharmaceuticals, as well as a thickening agent in personal care products, and a packaging film. For instance, microcrystalline cellulose is found as an inert ingredient in acetaminophen and hydrocodone.
Chemistry of Cellulose
Chemically, cellulose is a complex carbohydrate, specifically a long chain of linked sugar molecules or polysaccharide. Cellulose is the building block that gives plant cells their structure, and it is considered the most abundant organic compound on the planet. It typically comes form wood pulp, but may also come from cotton, bamboo or other plant materials. The plant matter is crushed and treated with hot water and chemical enzymes to break it down.
Cellulose is modified to obtain different functional properties. Microcrystalline cellulose is made by the hydrolysis of cellulose, while carboxymetheylcellulose is obtained by reacting cellulose with chloroacetic acid. Cellulose comes in several forms with slightly different textures and moisture contents:
1) Powdered Cellulose, used for anti-caking applications,
2) Microcrystalline cellulose (listed as MCC or cellulose gel),
3) Carboxymethyl cellulose or cellulose gum. These last two forms, the cellulose gum and gel are hydrated forms, commonly used in yogurt, ice cream or sauces.
Cellulose may be sold under the trade names Abicel, Avicel, Cellex MX, Arbocel, Jelucel, or Hypromellose.
Is it Healthy?
The FDA sets no limits on the amount of cellulose that can be added to food, categorizing it as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). There are no known health problems with consuming cellulose. The only legal limitation is 3.5% for cellulose fillers added to meat.
In the diet, cellulose is indigestible, because we lack the enzymes to break it down. Therefore it contributes neither energy nor nutrients. Cellulose is considered dietary fiber — it adds bulk and fiber without adding fat or calories. Adults males are advised to consume at least 38 grams of fiber daily; women should intake at least 25 grams.
Of course fiber is good for you. So what’s wrong with getting fiber from cellulose? There are better sources of fiber: beans, broccoli, raspberries, blackberries, avocado, as well as whole wheat grains or flaxseed. Tastier, healthier, digestible….and they don’t come from wood pulp.
In addition, the processing of cellulose “is either highly polluting or energy consuming.”
Cellulose fiber may not be toxic…but it’s definitely not food.