I remember hearing back in the day that the secret ingredient in McDonald’s milk shakes was…wood. What?! Many people chalked it off to urban myth, but as the ingredient listed as cellulose began popping up with increased frequency, myth seemed less likely.
As it turns out, wood cellulose is used in everything from milk shakes to salad dressing, from muffins to pancake syrup. Food manufacturers use it to thicken and stabilize foods, replace fat and boost fiber content–as well as to reduce reliance on more expensive ingredients like oil or flour.
Powdered cellulose is made by cooking virgin wood pulp in 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. Then it’s mixed into popular foods, and unwittingly devoured by the consumer.
Even organic-food products aren’t safe from the taint of cellulose. According to a story in The Wall Street Journal, Organic Valley uses powdered cellulose made from wood pulp in its shredded-cheese products. The company would prefer not to use a synthetic ingredient, but cellulose is bland, white and repels moisture, making it the favored choice over products such as potato starch, says Tripp Hughes, director of product marketing for Organic Valley. Only powdered cellulose in its least manipulated form can be used in foods labeled “organic” or “made with organic” ingredients by the USDA.
Cellulose comes in different forms, each used for a specific purpose. Beyond powdered cellulose, two other modified forms are commonly used in food. Microcrystalline cellulose is either listed as such on labels, or as MCC, or in some cases as cellulose gel. Carboxymethyl cellulose or cellulose gum, another modified version, is listed as such on labels.
The website TheStreet rounded up a list of popular food companies that use cellulose in a number of their products. But so many companies are using it now in so many products, if you want to avoid it–check the label.
• Peaches & Crème Parfait
• Apples & Crème Parfait
(Click through to end for printable list.)