Cellulose is a molecule comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and is found in the cellular structure of virtually all plant matter. This organic compound, which is considered the most abundant on earth, is even excreted by some bacteria.
Cellulose provides structure and strength to the cell walls of plants and provides fiber in our diets. Although some animals, such as ruminants, can digest cellulose, humans cannot. Cellulose falls into the category of indigestible carbohydrates known as dietary fiber.
In recent years, cellulose has become a popular food additive due to its unique chemical and physical properties when combined with water. Although cellulose can be found in most plant matter, the most economical sources for industrial cellulose are cotton and wood pulp.
How is Cellulose Used in Food?
Fiber Supplement - With rising awareness about fiber intake, cellulose has become one of the most popular food additives. Adding cellulose to food allows an increase in bulk and fiber content without a major impact on flavor. Because cellulose binds and mixes easily with water, it is often added to increase the fiber content of drinks and other liquid items when the gritty texture of regular fiber supplements would be undesirable.
Calorie Reducer – Cellulose provides a lot of volume or bulk in food but because it is indigestible to humans, it has no caloric value. For this reason, cellulose has become a popular bulking agent in diet foods. Consumers who eat foods with a high cellulose content feel full physically and psychologically without having consumed many calories.
Thickening/Emulsifying - The gelling action of cellulose when combined with water provides both thickening and stabilizing qualities in the food to which it is added. Cellulose gel acts similarly to an emulsion, suspending ingredients within a solution and preventing water from separating out. Cellulose is often added to sauces for both the thickening and emulsifying action.
The thickening power of cellulose also allows for more air to be whipped into products like ice cream, or whipped topping. Cellulose allows for the production of thick and creamy food items without the use of as much fat.
Anti-caking – Cellulose’s ability to absorb moisture and coat ingredients in a fine powder make it the ingredient of choice for anti-caking applications. Shredded and grated cheeses, spice mixes, and powdered drink mixes are just a few of the many food items that take advantage of cellulose as an anti-caking agent.
Forms of Cellulose
Cellulose can be found on ingredient lists under a variety of names, depending on which form is used. Although cellulose has the same molecular structure regardless of the source (wood pulp, cotton, or other vegetable matter), how the molecules are bonded together and whether or not they are hydrated creates different “forms” of cellulose.
Powdered cellulose is the most widely used in food products and is the form of choice for anti-caking applications. Cellulose gum or cellulose gel, which are hydrated forms of cellulose, are often used in sauces or other wet items like ice cream and frozen yogurt.
Cellulose may also be found on ingredient lists under the names carboxymethyl cellulose, microcrystalline cellulose, or MCC.