One recurring argument I have heard as I improve my diet is that processed food is not the best food for you. This may be a no-brainer to some, but to others it is not. I was one of the people that blindly decided to eat whatever I wanted without reading the label. When I finally got around to reading the labels on the products I ate, I came across some interesting worlds. Words like butylated hydroxytoluene, diacetyl, potassium bromate, and gel cellulose gum were all words that I was reading on the ingredient lists. I decided to look into what cellulose was, because I was reading it on some of the products I believed to be organic- such as the Organic Valley Shredded Cheddar Cheese I was using.
Cellulose is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a polysaccharide (C6H10O5)x of glucose units that constitutes the chief part of the cell walls of plants, occurs naturally in such fibrous products as cotton and kapok, and is the raw material of many manufactured goods (as paper, rayon, and cellophane).
Cellulose products, gums and fibers allow food manufactures to offer white bread with high dietary fiber content, low-fat ice cream that still feels creamy on the tongue, and allow cooks to sprinkle cheese over their dinner without taking time to shred. The rising cost of raw materials like flour, sugar and oil is helping boost the popularity of these additives. Food-product makers use it to thicken or stabilize foods, replace fat and boost fiber content.
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.
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.
There are a ton of companies trading in on traditional ingredients in order to cut costs. Aunt Jemima’s pancake syrup? Cellulose. Pillsbury Pastry Puffs? Cellulose. Kraft Bagel-Fuls? Fast-food cheese? Sara Lee’s breakfast bowls? Cellulose, cellulose, and morecellulose.
But the worst thing about cellulose is not that it’s everywhere. The worst thing is that it is not food at all. Cellulose is, unlike the actual, normal food items you think you’re paying for, completely indigestible by human beings, and it has no nutritional value to speak of.
Here is a video from KMBCTV detailing companies that use cellulose as an ingredient.
Keep this in mind the next time you reach for that “30% more fiber” improved product.