The Amateur Food Detective

The Amateur Food Detective
Bluebird Acres Farm in Friendship, NY

Friday, August 12, 2011

What is cellulose?

Lately in the news we've been hearing that wood pulp is added to prepackaged shredded cheese to prevent the cheese from sticking together in one disgusting massive lump. Of course, you won't find "trees" on the ingredient list. Instead, you'll find it listed under the name "cellulose."

If you're like me, you're probably wondering exactly what this means for your health and body. I'm here to give you the facts, you decide how you feel about them.

First off, let me give you the definition of cellulose as written in a file from

Cellulose is the main component of higher plant cell walls and one of the most abundant organic compounds on earth. It can be derived from a number of sources using a number of techniques that are considered synthetic, and some that might be considered nonsynthetic (natural).

There are three forms of cellulose that have been petitioned for use: powdered cellulose, regenerated cellulose casing, and microcrystalline cellulose. I'm going to concentrate on the powdered form, which is used in prepackaged shredded cheese.

Powdered cellulose is considered synthetic, which seems odd, given that it's derived from a natural source, therefore it would leave one to believe it's a natural product. The reason it is considered synthetic, however, is because of the way the product is derived. Okay, here's the breakdown on wood. It's composed of approximately 50% cellulose, 30% hemicellulose, and 20% lignin. When processed, the cellulose is separated from its counterparts, then purified and dried. This is done using either caustic soda or sodium sulfate (alkali processes). Then after that there is the matter of extracting the alkali and then bleaching and purifying the pulp.

caustic soda-highly corrosive and reactive. Used as a raw material in the pulping and bleaching process. (
sodium sulfate-used as a low-cost, inert,
white filler in home laundry detergents. ( Also used in pulping.
Alkali-a soluble salt

Consider this: we can not digest cellulose. Our bodies don't have the enzymes required to break it down into a digestible form. So cellulose is basically a fiber. Makes sense. Eating tree bark would be considered eating fiber, I suppose.

Cellulose is regarded safe by the FDA as long as its used in accordance with the Good Manufacturing Practices (More on GMP in a separate post) and as long as it contains no metals or contaminants. (Whew. Happy to hear that.)

And, by the way, shredded cheese is not the only food that has cellulose added. It's also used as a stabilizer in some breads, reduced-calorie baked goods, and ice pops. You can even find it in sauces to give them a creamy texture. Or as a filtering aid for juice. Even used as a peelable sausage casing. Cellulose can be found in many products.

Let it be known, insofar as shredded cheese goes, there are alternatives to using wood pulp. Potato starch, for one. Also, rice and corn flours may be substituted. Though cellulose seems to be the most effective in keeping food moist, and as for cheese, separated.

So despite the chemical procedures to make it edible, cellulose is considered safe for consumption. Nothing to be afraid of, really. But I'll let you be the judge of that.

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