More and more of our food isn’t actually … food.
It’s wood pulp and other plant fibers — that is, it’s cellulose.
It’s not just that food manufacturers are sticking more additives into our food in the name keeping costs down (though that is one reason; read on). Cellulose helps to make foods taste the way consumers like while adding extra nutritional punch. Cellulose increases the fiber content of white bread; makes low-fat ice cream taste creamy; keeps shredded cheese from clumping into an ungainly glob. It’s found in such products as breads, pancakes, crackers, pizza crusts, muffins, scrambled eggs, mashed potato mixes and — one you may not have thought of — cheesecake.
According to the Wall Street Journal, cellulose additives belong to a “family of substances known as hydrocolloids that act in various ways with water, such as creating gels.” These additives have become more popular as the costs of raw materials like flour, sugar and oil have rise:
While some food manufactures say they aren’t increasing the percentage of cellulose in their products, others are boosting the amount of fiber in their foods with cellulose and other ingredients. Companies can save money by using it, even though it costs more by weight than conventional ingredients. Cellulose gives food “more water, more air, a creamy feeling in [the] mouth with less of other ingredients,” and only a very small amount is needed, says Niels Thestrup, vice president of the hydrocolloids department for Danisco AS. The Copenhagen-based company makes ingredients and enzymes for food, cleaning supplies and other products.
Cellulose is especially popular because it can be used in many ways in food and is relatively inexpensive at about $2.50 to $3 a pound for one type his company makes, says Mr. Thestrup. The company’s sales of hydrocolloids had been rising 3% to 5% a year over the past decade, but in the past two years, sales are up about 6% to 8%.
The Food and Drug Administration sets limits on how much cellulose can be used in food like cheese spreads and jams. For meat products (no, not Spam) cellulose can only make up 1% to 4% of the ingredients, to meet the FDA’s standards for protein content.
The Wall Street Journal notes that consuming cellulose does not appear to be related to any health problems:
Although the notion of eating fine grains of wood pulp might make some consumers blanch, nutritionists say cellulose — which gives plants their structure — is a harmless fiber that can often cut calories in food. Insoluble dietary fibers like cellulose aren’t digestible by humans so add bulk to food without making it more fattening.
In light of many people’s concerns about weight and nutrition, cellulose has its advantages, though it might seem a bit odd to eat foods that contain indigestible substances:
In the U.S., cutting calories from food doesn’t cause a problem because the country is in the grip of an obesity epidemic, says Joanne Slavin, professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. She served as chairwoman the carbohydrate committee of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
Cellulose can serve as a good source of dietary fiber for people who don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables or whole grains, Ms. Slavin says. The USDA’s most recent dietary guidelines recommend young women get 28 grams a day of fiber and young men consume 38 grams.
A March article on The Street lists a number of commonly available foods that use cellulose including Aunt Jemima Original Syrup, Eggo Strawberry and Blueberry waffles, MorningStar Farms Chik Patties Original and Nestlé’s hot cocoa mixes. Organic foods can also also contain cellulose. For instance, cellulose is used by Organic Valley for its shredded cheese products. Foods that are labeled “organic” or “made with organic” ingredients can only use powdered cellulose in its least manipulated form, according U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations.
With all this taken into consideration: Has our desire for foods that taste the way we want them to, that have nutritional value and that aren’t too high in calories gotten us to the point that we’re willing to eat some wood in our food?
Photo by Billa