Our culture is still fixated on eating low fat and high fiber foods. In response, our food manufacturers are feeding us amazing amounts of processed wood pulp to increase the fiber content of processed foods – even by so-called “natural” manufacturers.
Not surprisingly, there may be potential risks associated with replacing nutrient-rich ingredients with nutrient-vacant cellulose chemically extracted from wood.
Experts in the field are calling this practice “safe”— asserting that cellulose from wood is the same as cellulose from plants. But can this really be true?
Moreover, the FDA has put no regulation on how much wood cellulose can go into food products, so manufacturers can put as much wood fiber in each packaged or prepared food as they see fit. Since wood-based cellulose is significantly less expensive than plant cellulose, the sky seems to be the new limit!
You might be surprised to find out how much wood fiber you are eating – even in organic foods.
What is cellulose?
Cellulose is an insoluble fiber found mostly in grass, veggies, fruits and legumes. It does not dissolve in water, and thus does not break down in the body, passing through the digestive tract relatively intact.
Cellulose cannot be assimilated, and thus offers no nutritional value. However, insoluble fiber is absolutely necessary for healthy gut function, as it speeds up the movement of food through the intestinal tract and helps encourage regular elimination.
Moreover, the fruits and veggies that are the natural carriers of cellulose are loaded with nutrients, unlike the processed wood cellulose.
An Unequal Substitute
In a culture that rarely eats enough fruits and veggies, it is risky to tell consumers that a processed wood fiber additive is the same as a plant-based fiber naturally occurring in foods that are typically eaten whole.
Why eat more veggies when a modern loaf of bread can contain 18% of your daily requirement of fiber? This concentration of fiber was unheard of until the appearance of this highly processed and quite diverse wood fiber cellulose.
While experts claim that, nutritionally, replacing plant cellulose for wood cellulose does not make a difference, they may not be considering the other constituents of the whole foods from which we normally get our fiber. Since processed foods lack these constituents, wood fiber-laced foods are literally taking up valuable space in our diets, space that was once taken up by nutrient-dense foods.
Why Wood Fiber?
It turns out that cellulose processed from wood pulp acts and tastes much like fat.
Using wood cellulose, manufacturers can now produce foods that have much less fat, fewer calories, taste great, and offer the consumer a supposedly healthy, “high fiber” processed food.
Dan Inman, who is the director of research and development at J Rettenmaier USA, a company that sells “organic cellulose” to food manufactures, stated that manufacturers can replace as much as 50% of the fat from some packaged cookies, biscuits, cakes, and brownies with cellulose fiber, while achieving the same taste and appearance.
Today’s processed wood cellulose is used to thicken, stabilize, and extend the shelf life of foods. Since it delivers a creamy texture, it is found in many creamy foods like ice cream, shakes, mustard, syrup, barbeque sauce, and the like. It is also an emulsifier found in breads, crackers, cake mixes, dressings, frozen foods and more.
Not having to add the usual fat and flour to their products, manufacturers are saving a ton of money. One anonymous food industry executive said that food producers can generally save up to 30% in ingredient costs by using cellulose fiber made from wood. Since its use is not regulated by the FDA, manufactures are becoming extremely creative, using less and less real food and more and more processed and nutrient-vacant cellulose.
Screen Your Organics
Cellulose is readily used in many organic foods, like Organic Valley’s pre-grated cheese, where it is used as an anti-caking agent. The applications for wood cellulose are endless, so please check your labels for the “cellulose” ingredient—you may be surprised where you find it.
The Danger Zone
Today, more and more processed foods are replacing nutrient-dense ingredients with wood fiber cellulose. Experts and the FDA claim no health risks from this major shift in food processing.
Fats have been deemed bad by most health experts for years, and the highly processed fats used in most packaged foods have been widely condemned by health experts. With the appropriation of wood fiber cellulose in foods, food manufacturers are using less processed fat and more so-called healthy fiber, which looks great on paper.
But here is the rub: Foods without real, healthy fats don’t stick to your ribs!
It is the fat in food that delivers satiety and lasting energy, because dietary fat burns very slowly and makes energy last.
How Cravings Start
As whole foods are being morphed into nutrient-poor, high fiber, low fat products, I wonder how much lasting energy one can really get from a processed food meal that has diminished nutrition.
It seems that, very soon, we will be hungry again for something to satisfy a palate that was undernourished from the previous, highly processed meal. This is commonly called a craving, causing us to reach for our favorite comfort foods.
These foods are usually high-calorie, high sugar and high fat treats that spike blood sugar and energy for a spell. But soon, the blood sugar and energy crash, and the consumer is once again seeking out more fuel.
We already have an epidemic of pre-diabetes, the cause of the number one killer in America: heart disease. It seems the food industry has once again taken the shoot first and aim later approach to food manufacturing. That said, these new practices are saving the industry millions if not billions of dollars, so don’t expect to hear much about the down side of cellulose for a while.
In my opinion, we should all make an effort to avoid processed cellulose. It is hidden in so many foods, but making this effort will keep the amount of processed cellulose you ingest to a minimum.
Read labels, avoid additives, and eat fresh whole foods that you prepare. Like my mentor Jack Lalaine once told me, “Never eat anything out of a wrapper.” Oh yes, he wasn’t too fond of sugar either, as he claimed he hadn’t eaten dessert since 1929!