Cellulose, aka wood pulp, in processed foods

You’re eating wood pulp, and may not know it Photo: by katherna

WASHINGTON, June 12, 2013 – Cellulose is an organic compound found in almost any plant matter—and a large amount of processed and fast foods.  While indigestible by humans, it is added to foods for a variety of purposes.

Considered the most abundant organic compound on Earth, cellulose provides strength and structure to the cell walls in plants. 

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Cellulose is used as a fiber supplement, a calorie reducer, a thickener, emulsifier, and anti-caking agent in processed and fast foods.  Cellulose has also been used to replace oil, flour, sugar and other more expensive ingredients.  Cellulose can be made from nearly any plant, but wood pulp and cotton are the least expensive and therefore most widely used.

As consumers become more conscious of their fiber intake, cellulose has become a popular food additive found in many processed foods that advertise large amounts of dietary fiber.  As people eat less fruits and vegetables, the traditional source of dietary fiber, more food companies are adding cellulose to processed foods.  Since cellulose is water soluble, it is often used as a fiber additive for drinks, soups, and other liquids.

Considered harmless because it is indigestible and basically “goes right through you,” adding cellulose to food adds bulk without adding calories or fat.   Food processors can remove as much as 50% of the fat from certain products, especially baked goods, by replacing it with cellulose.   Even organic foods can contain cellulose. 

When cellulose combines with water, it creates a gel that can stabilize and thicken the food it is added to.  It can also emulsify substances such as sauces, preventing water from separating from the rest of the ingredients.  Cellulose also creates a creamy and smooth mouth feel because it allows for more air to be whipped into foods like frozen yogurt, whipped cream, and ice cream without additional fat (or more expensive ingredients). 

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Cotton is another inexpensive and widely used source of cellulose, photo by Calsidyrose


Finely ground cellulose powder covers products like shredded cheese to prevent caking and to keep out moisture. 

Cellulose used in foods today is classified as a Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) food substance by the Food and Drug Administration, and used in a wide variety of processed foods.  Cellulose appears on food ingredient labels as carboxymethyl cellulose, microcrystalline cellulose, or MCC.

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Recently, Chinese native and associate professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, Percival Zhang developed a process that transforms solid cellulose into a digestible carbohydrate called amylose.  Zhang explained the process in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year. 

At the moment production costs are too high to expect a flood of wood starch products on supermarket shelves.  But that could all change. 

So, is substituting certain ingredients or adding cellulose to foods really a big deal?

On the one hand, it is a way to add fiber to diets low in fruits and vegetables either due to lifestyle or cost considerations.  It also extends shelf life and availability of certain products, which would otherwise be out of many people’s budget.  It is also considered harmless to humans and has no nutritional value, which allows for creamier, richer, bulkier, better-tasting products with less fat and calories.

Regardless of the safety of cellulose to humans or that positive mouth feel, many consumers remain uncomfortable eating wood pulp and prefer to select foods without the additive. Educated consumers are growing uncomfortable eating processed foods, which studies increasingly suggest are more detrimental than beneficial to health. Many consumers also prefer whole, natural foods and see them as an important part of a balanced and healthy diet.

Proper labeling and awareness lets consumers make their own choices. However, some of the products that contain wood pulp may surprise you.

There is an extensive list of foods and products that contain cellulose.  See if some of the foods in your pantry have a little wood in them, and do you care?

Follow Laura Sesana on Twitter at @lasesana and get regular column posts and updates on Facebook and Google+  


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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