Looking to interpret the ingredients in processed foods? For many grocery-store shoppers, choosing between all the items on the shelves includes a glance at the list of ingredients. Artificial coloring, flavoring, and gum? What’s even in this food, you wonder. One difficult-to-pronounce additive that helps keep ice cream creamy (and maintains consistency in a lot of other food) will likely show up more in the future. Here's what you need to know:
Gluten-free foods are driving demand for cellulose gum
Thanks to demand that's expected to exceed $1 billion by 2019, you're probably going to see cellulose gum (or carboxymethyl cellulose), on more ingredient lists, according to analysts at Transparency Market Research.
Low fat and gluten-free frozen desserts are mostly to blame for increases in demand. Personal care products also contain cellulose gum with increasing frequency.
Low fat and gluten-free? Those are good things, right? Sure. We want to choose healthy fats over dietary fats to cut down on risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. And gluten “mimics sandpaper in the gut of celiacs and gluten-intolerant folks,” says Dr. Jean Layton, a naturopathic physician, on eatingrules.com. Making gluten-free food more accessible helps those people.
Carboxymethyl cellulose reduces fat content and replaces gluten as the thickener and binder in many processed foods, including ice cream, dressing, cheese, icing, jam, baby formula, and candy, as well as canned food, fast-cooking food, and beer.
It’s been in use for about 50 years and serves different purposes in different foods, the food additive council noted. It adds texture to instant beverages, prevents staling in baked goods, and keeps ice cream from forming ice crystals when it thaws and re-freezes.
CMC is cheaper than other food gums, making it more appealing to manufacturers of processed foods. Most shoppers are pleased to pay less in the grocery store, so what is CMC and is it okay to eat?
Mmm… wood pulp
Yes, it’s true. CMC is synthesized from wood pulp and cotton lint. Besides the thickening effect it has in processed foods, CMC is used in laundry detergent, paper products, and pharmaceuticals, including laxatives.
The Federal Food and Drug Administration says CMC is “generally recognized as safe.” It’s barely absorbed by the body, if at all, and has no nutritional value. It’s not considered harmful, but it can have a laxative effect, which reduces the nutritive value of what you're eating because it moves quickly through the body, preventing you from absorbing nutrients.
CMC is a derivative of methylcellulose, which manufacturers get by heating wood pulp (cellulose) with an acidic solution, then treating it with methyl chloride – a possibly toxic flammable gas. Sounds awesome, amiright? No, Layton says.
“Taking wood pulp and treating it with lye and a poisonous gas to create a food additive?" she writes. "Only in the world of Frankenfoods does this make sense — not in my kitchen, thank you."
Alternatively, Layton suggests different gluten-free flours that can produce the consistency and texture you want in your food.
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Ice cream photo from Shutterstock