What’s in your food that’s also found in glue, asphalt, automotive brake pads and your pet’s litter?
Wood? Yes. Or more specifically, cellulose or the wood pulp that is also used in cleaning detergents, welding electrodes, plastics, reinforcing compounds, construction materials, roof coating, emulsion paints and the other inedible items earlier listed.
In today’s fast-paced world of processed food, much of what we end up eating is loaded with factory-made additives like preservatives, artificial food colors and cellulose.
So the very same cellulose used for non-edibles is now being used extensively by the processed-food industry as an extender in a variety of food products ranging from shredded cheese to baked goods, puddings to crackers, ice creams and syrups, sauces and cake mixes.
Cellulose is virgin wood pulp that has been processed and manufactured to different lengths and types to suit different uses. Wood pulp can be processed into cellulose gum, powdered cellulose or microcrystalline cellulose.
Food-product makers use it to thicken or stabilize foods, enhance the texture of packaged food products like chocolate milk shakes, replace fat, boost fiber content—or even cut the need for ingredients like oil or flour that are getting more expensive.
It’s the stuff that makes white bread have more fiber, low-fat ice cream still feel creamy, and shredded cheese easy to sprinkle over meals.
“Manufacturers use cellulose in food as an extender, providing structure and reducing breakage,” Dan Inman, director of research and development at J. Rettenmaier USA told the publication The Street. Inman’s company supplies cellulose fibers for use in a variety of processed foods and meats meant for human and pet consumption as well as for nonfood uses.
Cellulose is safe, versatile
Cellulose is used because it is very versatile. Cellulose belongs to a family of substances known as hydrocolloids that act in different ways with water, such as creating gels. It is “snow white in color, bland and easy to work with,” Inman tells The Street.
In his 30 years in the food science business, Inman says he’s seen “an amazing leap in terms of the applications of cellulose fiber and what you can do with it.”
And while eating wood may seem unsafe, scary or unthinkable for many people, the United States Food and Drug Administration has deemed cellulose safe for human consumption.
Regardless of whether it comes from wood pulp or celery, “cellulose is cellulose,” says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the health advocacy group that is actively campaigning against the use of hyperactivity-causing food colors in food products.
No research so far points to health problems related to consuming cellulose, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) quotes Jacobson as saying.
The agency that regulates most food industry products has also set no limit on the amount of cellulose that can be used in food products meant for human consumption. But it has set a limit of 3.5 percent on the use of cellulose in meat products, in order to meet the agency’s standards for protein content.
Today, Kraft Foods Inc. uses forms of cellulose made from wood pulp and cotton in its shredded cheese and salad dressing, according to the WSJ article, Why Wood Pulp Makes Ice Cream Creamier. Nestlé SA also admits to the WSJ that it uses various types of cellulose to improve the texture of some products.
Meat processor Tyson Foods Inc. also uses cellulose on some cooked products to help maintain glazes or breading, and Kellogg Co. raises the amount of dietary fiber in its products with cellulose and other fibers like psyllium and bran, the finance news agency reports.