QUICK! What keeps pre-packaged shredded cheese from clumping, low-fat ice cream creamy, and pre-made milk shakes smooth? You guessed it! WOOD PULP. They call it “cellulose,” but it’s just powdered wood pulp. The industry loves this stuff. It’s cheap. It helps stabilize food, lowers fat content, increases fiber. Did I say it’s cheap?
As the prices of other food ingredients rise, food manufacturers are increasingly turning to cellulose so that they can keep production costs low. Even big organic brands like Organic Valley are not immune from the appeal.
Organic Valley uses powdered cellulose made from wood pulp in its shredded-cheese products. The company would prefer not to use a synthetic ingredient, but cellulose is bland, white and repels moisture, making it the favored choice over products such as potato starch, says Tripp Hughes, director of product marketing for Organic Valley. (source)
The appeal of cellulose as an additive
During the past two years, sales of cellulose have increased by 8%. This, when the average annual increase is 3%. What accounts for the rise in popularity? The Wall-Street Journal reports:
While some food manufactures say they aren’t increasing the percentage of cellulose in their products, others are boosting the amount of fiber in their foods with cellulose and other ingredients. Companies can save money by using it, even though it costs more by weight than conventional ingredients. Cellulose gives food “more water, more air, a creamy feeling in [the] mouth with less of other ingredients,” and only a very small amount is needed, says Niels Thestrup, vice president of the hydrocolloids department for Danisco AS. The Copenhagen-based company makes ingredients and enzymes for food, cleaning supplies and other products.
This is why cellulose gets added to non-fat and low-fat foods like low-fat ice cream, sour cream, yogurt, and non-dairy creamers, among others. It gives the mouth-feel of creaminess when the real cream is removed. If you aren’t already avoiding low-fat versions of real foods, perhaps this will provide you with the final push you need to change to eating full-fat, real food. After all, not only is full-fat dairy generally unadulterated and more natural compared to its low-fat counterparts, it has also been shown to lower risk of heart attacks.
How cellulose is made
Lest you protest and say “cellulose is in every plant food out there, now you’re saying it’s bad for me?,” let me explain the process by which the cellulose used as a food additive is made:
Cellulose comes in various forms, each with a specific use. Beyond powdered cellulose, two other modified forms are common in food. Microcrystalline cellulose is either listed as such on labels, as MCC, or in some cases as cellulose gel. Carboxymethyl cellulose or cellulose gum, another modified version, is listed as such on labels. Each gives foods a slightly different texture — from gelatinous to more liquid-like — because they trap varying amounts of air or water.
Powdered cellulose is made by cooking raw plant fiber — usually wood — in various chemicals to separate the cellulose, and then purified. Modified versions go through extra processing, such as exposing them to acid to further break down the fiber. (source)
In other words, this is not the cellulose you’d get from eating broccoli. No, this is cellulose that’s created in a laboratory, by a convoluted process you’d find difficult (if not impossible) to replicate in your own kitchen. And did I mention it’s made from wood pulp?
And yet, this unnatural food additive is considered “natural” by our government — so natural that it’s even allowed in foods bearing the “organic” label.
But, is added cellulose “safe”?
Well, your government says it is.
What? That’s not good enough for you? You don’t trust them? How about nutritionists?
Although the notion of eating fine grains of wood pulp might make some consumers blanch, nutritionists say cellulose — which gives plants their structure — is a harmless fiber that can often cut calories in food. Insoluble dietary fibers like cellulose aren’t digestible by humans so add bulk to food without making it more fattening.
Cellulose can serve as a good source of dietary fiber for people who don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables or whole grains, Ms. Slavin says. The USDA’s most recent dietary guidelines recommend young women get 28 grams a day of fiber and young men consume 38 grams.
“Cellulose is cellulose,” regardless of if whether it comes from wood pulp or celery, says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that advocates healthier, more nutritious food. He says no research points to health problems related to consuming cellulose.
The Food and Drug Administration sets limits on the amount of cellulose in certain foods like cheese spreads and jams. The USDA also limits the amount of cellulose in meat products to about 1% to 4%, depending on the type, in order to meet the agency’s standards for protein content.
Here’s my question. Who cares if it’s safe? It’s disturbingly unnatural to have wood pulp in your cheese or cotton in your salad dressing.
Yes, I said “cotton in your salad dressing.” Thank you, Kraft Foods, for making such statements actually truthful and not merely the figment of a childish, over-active imagination.
What can you do?
Well, stop buying shredded cheese, for one thing. Buy cheese by the block and shred it or slice it yourself. You’ll save money, and you won’t be eating wood pulp. It’s a win, win! Want to know how to prioritize your cheese choices? Check out this post on Healthy Cheese: What To Buy.
Secondly, you should stop buying the reduced fat versions of full fat foods. Good fat from real food is actually healthy for you. Plus, when you take the fat out of traditionally fatty foods, you’ve got to replace it with something. That usually results in ingredient labels that read like chemistry text books.
And lastly, stick to eating foods with ingredient labels you actually understand — or better yet, foods without ingredient labels at all! These are whole foods. Cook from scratch with them, and you’ll always know what’s in your food.
(photo by ShardsOfBlue)