The recent class-action lawsuit brought against Taco Bell raised questions about the quality of food many Americans eat each day.
Chief among those concerns is the use of cellulose (read: wood pulp), an extender whose use in a roster of food products, from crackers and ice creams to puddings and baked goods, is now being exposed. What you're actually paying for -- and consuming -- may be surprising.
Cellulose is virgin wood pulp that has been processed and manufactured to different lengths for functionality, though use of it and its variant forms (cellulose gum, powdered cellulose, microcrystalline cellulose, etc.) is deemed safe for human consumption, according to the FDA, which regulates most food industry products. The government agency sets no limit on the amount of cellulose that can be used in food products meant for human consumption. The USDA, which regulates meats, has set a limit of 3.5% on the use of cellulose, since fiber in meat products cannot be recognized nutritionally.
"As commodity prices continue to rally and the cost of imported materials impacts earnings, we expect to see increasing use of surrogate products within food items. Cellulose is certainly in higher demand and we expect this to continue," Michael A. Yoshikami, chief investment strategist at YCMNet Advisors, told TheStreet.
Manufacturers use cellulose in food as an extender, providing structure and reducing breakage, said Dan Inman, director of research and development at J. Rettenmaier USA, a company that supplies "organic" cellulose fibers for use in a variety of processed foods and meats meant for human and pet consumption, as well as for plastics, cleaning detergents, welding electrodes, pet litter, automotive brake pads, glue and reinforcing compounds, construction materials, roof coating, asphalt and even emulsion paints, among many other products.
Cellulose adds fiber to the food, which is good for people who do not get the recommended daily intake of fiber in their diets, Inman said. It also extends the shelf life of processed foods. Plus, cellulose's water-absorbing properties can mimic fat, he said, allowing consumers to reduce their fat intake.
Perhaps most important to food processors is that cellulose is cheaper, he added, because "the fiber and water combination is less expensive than most other ingredients in the food product."
Indeed, food producers save as much as 30% in ingredient costs by opting for cellulose as a filler or binder in processed foods, according to a source close to the processed food industry who spoke with TheStreet on the condition of anonymity.
Inman said that in his 30 years in the food science business, he's seen "an amazing leap in terms of the applications of cellulose fiber and what you can do with it." He said powdered cellulose has a bad reputation but that more of his customers are converting from things like oat or sugar cane fibers to cellulose because it is "snow white in color, bland and easy to work with."
"We're only limited by our own imagination," Inman told TheStreet. "I would never have dreamed I could successfully put 18% fiber in a loaf of bread two years ago."
He said cellulose is common in processed foods, often labeled as reduced-fat or high-fiber -- products like breads, pancakes, crackers, pizza crusts, muffins, scrambled eggs, mashed potato mixes, and even cheesecake. Inman himself keeps a box of Wheat Thins Fiber Selects crackers, manufactured by Kraft Foods(KFT)' Nabisco brand, at his desk, and snacks on them daily, clearly unmoved by the use of wood pulp in its ingredients.
"Most consumers would be shocked to find these types of filler products are used as substitutes for items that they believe are more pure," Yoshikami said. "We would expect increased disclosure to follow increased use of cellulose and other filler products as the practice increases in frequency."
To that end, TheStreet rounded up a list of popular foods that use cellulose. It's by no means an exhaustive list, and we suggest consumers read food labels carefully. Still, click through the slideshow to find out if your favorite foods contain the "all-natural" wood pulp...
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