Jamie Oliver recently shocked Letterman when he told Dave and his audience that vanilla ice cream contains a product called castoreum that comes from beaver anal gland.
Little did Dave know there’s also wood pulp in ice cream.
In an effort to undercut the rising cost of flour, sugar and oil, the food industry is using cellulose products like gums and fibers in processed foods to thicken or stabilize foods, replace fat and enhance fiber content.
For example, powdered cellulose contains minute pieces of wood pulp or other plant fibers that coat cheese to prevent it from clumping by blocking out moisture. And cellulose products are used to make low-fat ice cream that tastes creamy.
In an informative Wall Street Journal piece, Sarah Nassauer explains that cellulose additives belong to a family of substances known as hydrocolloids that act in various ways with water, such as creating gels.
Many hydrocolloids are derived from natural substances and are used as thickening agents, foam, and emulsion stabilizers.
Hydrocolloids are commonly used in:
• Food concentrates to make custards, jellies and instant soups.
• Fermented products – for clarifying beers, wines and drinking honeys.
• Bakery products – for better water binding and better structure.
• Dairy products for stabilizing suspensions and emulsions.
• Sweet snacks – for making sweets, cake icings, chewing gums.
• Fruit and vegetable products – structure improvement of jams and vegetable sauces.
• Sauces – stabilization of sauces and mayonnaises.
• Meat – for better water binding, stabilizing emulsions and stuffing thickening. [Source]
Nassauer says companies can save money by using cellulose and other ingredients, even though it costs more by weight than conventional ingredients.
Niels Thestrup, vice president of the hydrocolloids department for Danisco AS, says cellulose costs about $2.50 to $3 a pound for one type his company makes. The company’s sales of hydrocolloids have risen 6% to 8% in the past two years.
Nassauer claims even organic-food products can contain cellulose, and says Organic Valley uses powdered cellulose made from wood pulp in its shredded-cheese products.
Tripp Hughes, director of product marketing for Organic Valley, says the company would prefer not to use a synthetic ingredient, but, alas, they do anyway in place of products such as potato starch.
In addition to powdered cellulose, two other modified forms are common in food: Microcrystalline cellulose and Carboxymethyl cellulose or cellulose gum.
Nassauer explains that 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.
Kraft Foods Inc. uses cellulose made from wood pulp and cotton in shredded cheese and salad dressing. “Cellulose has unique properties making it the best choice to perform certain functions, such as anticaking, thickening and replacing fat,” says spokeswoman Susan Davison.
The FDA supposedly sets limits on the amount of cellulose in certain foods, and the USDA also limits the amount of cellulose in meat products to about 1% to 4%.
“Cellulose is cellulose,” regardless of if whether it comes from wood pulp or celery, says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Although Jacobson says no research points to health problems related to consuming cellulose, somehow, knowing that cellulose is bathed in acid and chemicals, I’m not convinced.