Powdered Wood Pulp Makes Food Delicious (sic)
If you've bought low-fat ice cream, bottled milkshakes or shredded cheese recently, you may have noticed "powdered cellulose" listed as an ingredient. Cellulose, tiny particles of plant and wood fiber, is used as a thickening agent in foods, and as an anti-caking additive. And its use is reportedly on the rise (WSJ) as ingredients like flour and oil become more expensive.
Cellulose products, gums and fibers allow food manufactures to offer white bread with high dietary fiber content, low-fat ice cream that still feels creamy on the tongue, and allow cooks to sprinkle cheese over their dinner without taking time to shred. Demand for cellulose is also rising because of the growing popularity of processed food products in China, India and other countries, and because consumers are demanding low-fat or nonfat foods that still have a creamy texture.
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
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. Kraft Foods uses cellulose made from wood pulp and cotton in some salad dressings.
Only powdered cellulose in its least manipulated form can be used in foods labeled "organic" or "made with organic" ingredients by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Beyond powdered cellulose, two other modified forms are common in food. Microcrystalline cellulose is either listed as such on labels, as MCC, or in some cases as cellulose gel. Carboxymethyl cellulose or cellulose gum, another modified version, is listed as such on labels. Each gives foods a slightly different texture — from gelatinous to more liquid-like because they trap varying amounts of air or water.