Wood Pulp in Food: Makes It Cheap But Is It Safe to Eat?

Wood Pulp in Food: Makes It Cheap But Is It Safe to Eat? 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.

wood pulp in food

Wood pulp in food: 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.

Even many organic food products now contain cellulose, but only powdered cellulose in its least manipulated form can be used in foods labeled “organic” or “made with organic” ingredients by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Organic Valley, for instance, uses powdered cellulose made from wood pulp in its shredded-cheese products, WSJ says.

Pepsi, Nestle, Kellogg, General Mills, McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Kraft Foods, Wendy’s, Sonic, Dole Food, Sara Lee, Weight Watchers and Yum’s Brands Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC are among the food companies that use cellulose, writer Miriam Reimer reports in 15 Food Companies That Serve You ‘Wood’, a March 2011 article in the online publication The Street.

Miracle food additive?
So is cellulose the miracle food additive for today’s fast-paced world?

Cellulose comes in various forms and each has its specific use.

First, there’s powdered cellulose or tiny pieces of wood pulp or other plant fibers. This is made by cooking raw plant fiber—usually wood—in many chemicals to separate the cellulose, which is then purified. Some versions also go through extra processing, such as exposing them to acid, to break down the fiber further.

Powdered cellulose is found in shredded cheese, used to coat the cheese, block out moisture and keep it from clumping. This way, it also helps preserve the shredded cheese and prevent it from molding.

Other modified forms of cellulose used in food are microcrystalline cellulose, listed as such as MCC on labels, or in some cases as cellulose gel, and carboxymethyl cellulose or cellulose gum.

By trapping varying amounts of air or water, each of these cellulose types gives foods a slightly different texture, depending on what is desired, from gelatinous to more liquid-like.

All types of cellulose extend the shelf life of processed foods.

Cellulose adds fiber to food products, and this is good for people who do not get the recommended daily intake of fiber in their diets.

Its water-absorbing properties can mimic fat, allowing consumers to reduce their fat intake. Using cellulose can actually halve the amount of fat in some cookies, biscuits, cakes and brownies by replacing fat with powdered cellulose that makes the final product still taste and look like their fat-laden originals.

Many processed foods labeled as reduced-fat or high-fiber—breads, pancakes, crackers, pizza crusts, muffins, scrambled eggs, mashed potato mixes and cheesecakes—make use of this ‘fat-replacing’ characteristic of cellulose.

What’s more, nutritionists say cellulose is a harmless fiber that often cuts the amount of calories in food products. Because cellulose is an insoluble dietary fiber, humans can’t digest it, so it adds bulk to food without making it more fattening.

And in the U.S., now gripped by an obesity epidemic, this may be a good thing, says Joanne Slavin, the University of Minnesota’s professor of food science and nutrition.

Cellulose can also serve as a good source of dietary fiber for people who don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables or whole grains, says Slavin, who also headed the carbohydrate committee of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Young women must get 28 grams a day of fiber and young men must consume 38 grams, the USDA’s recommends in its most recent dietary guidelines.

Wood pulp in your food: Makes it cheaper to make
But the driving force behind the growing use of cellulose is cost: Food processors are turning to cellulose because it is cheaper.

“The fiber and water combination is less expensive than most other ingredients in the [food] product,” says Inman, the cellulose supplier.

Cellulose gives food “more water, more air, a creamy feeling in [the] mouth with less of other ingredients,” Niels Thestrup, vice president of the hydrocolloids department for Danisco AS tells the Wall Stree Journal.

The Copenhagen-based company that makes ingredients and enzymes for food, cleaning supplies and other products was interviewed by the finance news agency for .

More, “only a very small amount is needed,” Thestrup says, and it is cheaper. Cellulose from Danisco AS costs about US$2.50 to US $3 a pound, while the prices of raw materials like flour, sugar and oil keeps rising. The company’s sales of hydrocolloids had been rising three to five percent a year over the past decade, but in the past two years, sales are up about six to eight percent.

Today food producers save as much as 30 percent in ingredient costs when they use cellulose as a filler or binder in processed foods, a source from the processed food industry told The Street on the condition of anonymity.

But critics say consumers deserve disclosure.

“Most consumers would be shocked to find these types of filler products are used as substitutes for items that they believe are more pure,” says Michael A. Yoshikami, the chief investment strategist at YCMNet Advisors who also told The Street that he expects the use of cellulose in the food industry to grow.

“As commodity prices continue to rally and the cost of imported materials impacts earnings, we expect to see increasing use of surrogate products within food items. Cellulose is certainly in higher demand and we expect this to continue,” he said. “We would expect increased disclosure to follow increased use of cellulose and other filler products as the practice increases in frequency,” he says.

The Street rounded up a list of popular foods that use wood pulp in food. Here’s the list:

Pepsi(PEP) uses cellulose or wood pulp in food for the following products:
• Aunt Jemima Frozen Blueberry Pancakes
• Aunt Jemima Original Syrup
• Aunt Jemima Original Syrup Kellogg (K)

Kellogg(K) uses cellulose or wood pulp in food for the following products:
• MorningStar Farms Chik’n Nuggets
• MorningStar Farms Chik Patties Original
• MorningStar Farms Buffalo Wings Veggie Wings
• Eggo Nutri-Grain Blueberry waffles
• Eggo Strawberry Waffles
• Eggo Blueberry Waffles
• Cinnabon Pancakes Original
• Cinnabon Pancakes Caramel
• Cinnabon Snack Bars Original
• Cinnabon Snack Bars Baked Cinnamon Apple Weight Watchers International(WTW)

General Mills(GIS) uses wood pulp in food for the following products:
• Fiber One Ready-To-Eat Muffins (Wild Blueberry & Oats; Mixed Fruit, Nuts & Honey; Apple Cinnamon Bun, Banana Chocolate Chip)
• Fiber One Original cereal
• Fiber One Chewy Bars (90 Calorie Chocolate, 90 Calorie Chocolate Peanut Butter)
• Fiber One baking products (Apple Cinnamon Muffin Mix, Banana Nut Muffin Mix, Blueberry Muffin Mix)
• Pillsbury Moist Supreme Classic Yellow Cake Mix
• Pillsbury Mozzarella and Pepperoni Pastry Puffs
• Pillsbury Cheese and Spinach Crescent Pastry Puffs
• Pillsbury Artichoke and Spinach Bread Bowl Bites
• Pillsbury Buffalo Chicken Crescent Pastry Puffs
• Pillsbury Cream Cheese and Jalapeno Bread Bowl Bites
• Betty Crocker whipped frostings (Strawberry Mist, Chocolate, Cream Cheese)
• Betty Crocker Vanilla Amazing Glazes
• Duncan Hines Cake Mixes (Devil’s Food Cake Mix, Dark Chocolate Fudge, Strawberry Supreme, Fudge Marble, Classic Yellow, French Vanilla) McDonald’s(MCD)

McDonald’s (MCD) uses cellulose or wood pulp in food for the following:
• Fish Filet Patty
• McRib
• Premium Caesar Salad
• Chipotle BBQ Snack Wrap
• Premium Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken
• Southern Style Chicken Biscuit
• Strawberry Sundae
• Natural Swiss Cheese (used in McRib, Quarter Pounder with Cheese, Angus Mushroom & Swiss, Premium Grilled Chicken Club Sandwich, Premium Crispy Chicken Club Sandwich, Angus Mushroom & Swiss Snack Wrap)
• Shredded Cheddar/Jack Cheese (used in Ranch Snack Wrap (Crispy and Grilled), Honey Mustard Snack Wrap (Crispy and Grilled), Chipotle BBQ Snack Wrap (Crispy and Grilled), Premium Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken, Premium Southwest Salad with/without Crispy/Grilled Chicken, Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with/without Crispy/Grilled Chicken, McSkillet Burrito with Sausage)
• Barbeque Sauce
• Sweet ‘N Sour Sauce
• Shredded Parmesan Cheese (used in Premium Caesar Salad with/without Crispy/Grilled Chicken)
• Biscuit (Large and Regular) (used to make Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit, Sausage Biscuit with Egg, Sausage Biscuit, Southern Style Chicken Biscuit, Big Breakfast with/without Hotcakes)
• Vanilla Reduced Fat Ice Cream (used in Strawberry Sundae, Hot Caramel Sundae, Hot Fudge Sundae, McFlurry with M&M’S Candies, McFlurry with OREO Cookies, Chocolate Triple Thick Shake, Strawberry Triple Thick Shake, Vanilla Triple Thick Shake)

Yum’s Brands’ (YUM) Taco Bell uses cellulose in the following products:
• Southwest Chicken
• Caramel Apple Empanada
• Corn Tortilla
• Enchilada Rice
• Nacho Chips
• Red Strips
• Strawberry Topping
• Zesty Dressing Jack in the Box(JACK)

Yum’s Brands'(YUM) Pizza Hut uses cellulose or wood pulp in food for the following:
• Parmesan Romano Cheese
• Taco Bean Sauce
• Shredded Cheddar (for Taco Pizza)
• Breadstick Seasoning (used to make Cheese Breadsticks)
• WingStreet Bone-In (in the batter)
• Meatballs (for pasta products, sandwiches)
• White Pasta Sauce (used for PastaBakes Marinara, PastaBakes Meatball Marinara, PastaBakes Primavera, PastaBakes Chicken Primavera)
• Alfredo Sauce (used for PastaBakes Marinara, PastaBakes Meatball Marinara, PastaBakes Primavera, PastaBakes Chicken Primavera)

Wendy’s Arby’s
uses cellulose in the following products:
• Asiago Cheese (used in Spicy Chicken Caesar Salad, Asiago Ranch Chicken Club, Caesar Side Salad)
• Fat Free French Dressing (for Apple Pecan Chicken Salad, Baja Salad, Spicy Chicken Caesar Salad, BLT Cobb Salad)
• Fat Free Ranch Dressing Wendy’s Arby’s(WEN)

• Blue Cheese Crumbles (used in Apple Pecan Chicken Salad, BLT Cobb Salad)
• Cheddar Pepper Jack Cheese Blend, Shredded
• Chocolate Sauce
• Coffee Toffee Twisted Frosty (Chocolate, Vanilla)
• Frosty (Chocolate and Vanilla)
• Frosty Shake (Frosty-cino, Chocolate Fudge, Strawberry, Vanilla Bean)
• Milk, 1% Low Fat Chocolate Milk Sonic(SONC)

Jack in the Box(JACK) uses cellulose or wood pulp in food for the following products:
• Cheese, Cheddar, Shredded (used in Grilled Chicken Salad, Chicken Club Salad with Crispy Chicken, Meaty Breakfast Burrito, Hearty Breakfast Bowl)
• Cheese, Pepper Jack, Shredded (used in Chicken Fajita Pita, Southwest Chicken Salad with Grilled Chicken, Meaty Breakfast Burrito)
• Honey Mustard Dipping Sauce
• Ice Cream Shake Mix
• Log Cabin Syrup
• Mini Funnel Cake
• Mozzarella Cheese Sticks (also part of Sampler Trio)
• Smoothie Base (Mango, Strawberry, Strawberry Banana)
• Tortilla, Flour (used for Chorizo Sausage Burrito, Steak & Egg Burrito, Meaty Breakfast Burrito)
• White Cheese Sauce (used in Breakfast Bowl (Hearty and Denver)) Kraft Foods(KFT)

Nestle(NSRGY) uses wood pulp in food for the following products:
• Hot Cocoa Mixes (Mini Marshmallows, Rich Milk Chocolate, Chocolate Mint, Chocolate Caramel)

Dole Food (DOLE) uses cellulose in the following products:
• Peaches & Cr’me Parfait
• Apples & Cr’me Parfait Yum’s Brands'(YUM) KFC

Kraft Foods uses cellulose in the following products:
• Wheat Thins Fiber Selects
• Frozen Bagel-Fuls
• Macaroni & Cheese Thick ‘n Creamy
• Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Three Cheese W/mini-shell Pasta Yum’s Brands'(YUM) Pizza Hut

Sara Lee(SLE) uses cellulose or wood pulp in food for the following products:
• Jimmy Dean Frozen Breakfast Bowl (Sausage & Gravy)
• Jimmy Dean D-lights Turkey Sausage Breakfast Bowl
• Jimmy Dean D-lights Turkey Sausage Croissant
• Jimmy Dean Breakfast Entr’e (Scrambled Eggs with Bacon/Sausage and Cheese Diced Apples & Seasoned Hash) Yum’s Brands'(YUM) Taco Bell
• Sugar Free Vanilla Syrup (used in Premium Roast Coffee, Espresso) Sara Lee(SLE)

Sonic(SONC) uses cellulose or wood pulp in food for the following products:
• Ice Cream
• Sonic Blast
• Banana Split
• Ice Cream Cone Dole Food(DOLE)

KFC uses cellulose or wood pulp in food for the following products:
• KFC Cornbread Muffin
• Apple Turnover
• Honey Mustard BBQ Sauce
• Lil’ Bucket Strawberry Short Cake Parfait
• Lil’ Bucket Lemon Cr’me Parfait
• Lil’ Bucket Chocolate Cr’me Parfait
• Oreo Cookies and Cr’me Pie Slice
• Reese’s Peanut Butter Pie Slice
• Popcorn Chicken
• Strawberry Cream Cheese Pie Slice Nestle(NSRGY)


Weight Watchers International
(WTW) uses cellulose or wood pulp in food for the following products:
• Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich
• English Toffee Crunch Ice Cream Bar
• Giant Cookies & Cream Ice Cream Bar General Mills(GIS)

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For related food/nutrition stories, check out the following:

Undercooked Liver Pate Food Poisoning

Are Your Beansprouts Salmonella-Free?
Fight Fat and Carbs With Orange Juice

Wood Pulp in Your Food: Makes Food Cheap But Is It Safe to Eat? Posted 10 January 2012.