SALT LAKE CITY — There are dozens of uses for sawdust, including gardening, animal bedding and liquid absorbents, but one use people may not be familiar with is as a food additive.
It may not be listed as wood shavings on that box of pancake mix or carton of ice cream, but it's probably in many of the foods in a typical pantry. It's called cellulose.
“You could sort of nicely describe it as a fiber, and that's the most accurate description,” said Kathleen Boyton, a gastroenterologist at the University of Utah.
Cellulose is a naturally occurring substance found in the walls of plants. Essentially, it's wood pulp, and it's in many processed foods.
It's approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and there's no limit on how much can be in food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates meats, has set a 3.5 percent limit on cellulose because fiber in meat products cannot be recognized nutritionally.
Eleni Billick, a mother of two, said she was surprised at how many items in her pantry had cellulose listed as an ingredient. It can also be listed as cellulose gum, microchrystaline cellulose, M-C-C and powdered cellulose. It was found in cake mixes, syrup and even coffee creamer.
“We have protein with every meal,” Billick said. “We make sure we're a little less on the carbs and less on the fat, but we really try to be high protein, and I look for those things. I look for carbs and proteins and fats and sugars, but I don't look for cellulose.”
So why are manufacturers filling our food with wood pulp?
“It has a variety of appealing aspects that can make the food look and taste more palatable," Boyton said. "It's a filler. It sort of adds bulk to food.”
Demand for cellulose is rising because consumers want low-fat or nonfat foods that still have a creamy texture. It's also inexpensive.
It's not just in store-bought items. It is listed as an ingredient in foods from a variety of fast-food chains, and even some organic products contain it.
Doctors say it's not harmful. And in some cases, may actually be a good thing.
“I would rather eat wood product than I would some of those color additives,” Boyton said. “I mean, those were made in a lab. At least wood's been around forever.”
Sometimes cellulose replaces sugar or fat in food, yet the food is still filling. It's the other additives in processed foods that concern Boyton.
“I could tell you that I know a tomato has been around for thousands of years, and the odds are that tomato is going to be safe for me to eat,” she said. “But whether or not that food coloring is going to be safe, we don't have as long a track record with that.”
Boyton said the medical community has seen a spike in food allergies and diseases such as Crohns, a chronic inflammatory disease of the intestines, and celiac disease, a condition triggered by the consumption of gluten, which is primarily found in bread, pasta and foods containing wheat, barley or rye. She said she believes unnatural food additives may be to blame.
“We know that the medical spectrum of diseases that we’re seeing are beginning to shift,” Boyton said. “In particular, we’re getting people who may have allergies to foods, or maybe getting disease that we think we can tie into what we’re eating.”
Her advice to grocery shoppers: Go to the perimeter of the store where dairy, fruit and vegetables are found, not the aisles in the center.
“The fewer ingredients, the easier it is to pronounce, the more you're getting close to that native form,” Boyton said.
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