wood pulp

Want a side of lumber with your dinner? That’s what you may be munching on if cellulose is on the ingredient list of your foods.

Food producers use this factory-made additive, crafted from miniscule pieces of wood pulp or other plant fibers, in processed foods all the time. Cellulose coats shredded cheese to keep it from clumping. It boosts the fiber content in white bread. It thickens foods—so that low-fat ice cream tastes just as creamy as the regular version. Cellulose adds bulk to foods without adding fat because we can’t digest insoluble dietary fibers. It’s in everything from baked goods to syrup to cereal.

“Well, that’s disgusting,” you say. “But I only buy organic food.” Sorry to say, but cellulose sneaks into organic foods as well, such as organic shredded cheese.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only powdered cellulose in its least manipulated form can be used in foods labeled “organic” or “made with organic” ingredients. Well, that’s comforting, right? Didn’t think so.

The low cost of this synthetic additive, coupled with the rising cost of raw materials such as flour, oil and sugar is increasing its popularity among food producers.

Different forms of cellulose can also appear on labels under other names. Microcrystalline cellulose is labeled as MCC or cellulose gel and carboxymethyl cellulose is labeled as cellulose gum. They add different textures to foods by trapping various amounts of air or water.

No, eating cellulose isn’t the same as chomping on a 2X4—at least they ground it up. For reals though, powdered cellulose is made by heating the raw wood fibers in different chemicals to separate the cellulose. The mixture then gets purified. Other versions of cellulose go through even more processing.

Nutritionists say eating cellulose isn’t harmful. “Cellulose is cellulose,” whether it comes from wood pulp or celery, Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that advocates healthier, more nutritious food, said in a Wall Street Journal article.

For us laymen, though, I think we can probably agree that chemically processed wood pulp is not the same as eating vegetables.

image: Clownhouse III

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