Episodes in Food Alarmism

So I’m perusing Quartz this morning and come across an incredibly ridiculous article, “There is a secret ingredient in your burgers: wood pulp” which purports to uncover the shocking, shocking, I tell you, secret that fast food, especially McDonald’s (this lets you know it is eeeeviiiiil, because McDonald’s does it) may contain powdered cellulose. Let’s unpack this nonsense, shall we?

This is a facile argument, trying to substitute emotion for facts. It plays on food paranoia and the “fact” that Fast Food is Bad For You Because It Is. Basically, the writer, Devin Cohen, declares that powdered cellulose is “wood pulp,” which means fast food joints are bulking up food products with pieces of timber! Then he has a link to a questionable medical study showing that large amounts of this administered to laboratory rats may cause an increase in cholesterol (the same study shows wheat bran may increase triglycerides), and then slips in the fact that the FDA has approved the product, implying by juxtaposition that the FDA has approved it despite possible health risks.

First of all, Cohen states the substance is being used as a “filler,” which implies that it is being used in substantial amounts to replace other ingredients. He claims that “The cost effectiveness of this filler has pushed many chains to use progressively less chicken in their “chicken” and cream in their “ice cream.” The take away is that, like using soy filler in, say, ground beef, this is a significant ingredient replacement. When you actually read the ingredients list of McDonald’s food, however, it is immediately clear that this is a trace element, used not to “bulk out” the food, and is found in quantities of less than 2% of the product. What sounds like a massive mix-in of fiber to replace chicken or milk, is actually a modest use of a naturally derived food stabilizer and emulsifier. Basically, it does the much of the same work as corn starch.

Please read this short page on what it is and what it does. It creates a gel that improves mouth feel of things like milk shakes and reduces fat absorption from a fryer. It acts a lot like pectin in jams and jellies. It is flavor neutral, so can be used with a lot of foods. What it isn’t is a “filler”. It does not replace the main ingredients of anything. It does not reduce the chicken in a chicken sandwich or the ice cream in an ice cream cone. That is pure BS.

Next, Cohen calls it flat out “wood pulp,” with the implication that it’s just pulped up paper. This sounds so gross and scary until you realize that it is, duh, just another example of humans using plant materials in their cuisine. I eat “tree bark” every single day. It’s called cinnamon in my morning oatmeal. I eat tree sap regularly – in the form of maple syrup. Plant sap in the form of agave sweetener. Tree buds in the form of capers. Tree fruit in the form of, well, fruit.

Humans use all sorts of tree shit in our foods and always have. If it’s a plant, we’ve probably tried to eat it. We make crazy ass food stuff from things that are not, on the face of it, edible. Many tubers eaten on a regular basis across the globe are poisonous if not prepared just so, for example. We use guar gum as a thickener and emulsifier just like powdered cellulose or corn starch or potato starch or wheat flour or arrowroot or agar or any of a dozen other (at the least) plant-derived substances that we use to make food thicken up. There is nothing particularly shocking or unusual about using plant stuff to change the texture of food.

This is just lazy, cheap-shot food alarmism from someone wanting attention. He capitalizes on the cultural disdain for fast food to make a disingenuous claim about that food, and provides totally misleading information about why it is in the food, how much is in it and how it is used.

This argument is simply an attack on a kind of food the author doesn’t like by spreading FUD about a little known food ingredient.


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Posted in Politics
3 comments on “Episodes in Food Alarmism
  1. sanctimonious purist says:

    Agreed. But I’m wondering if within the range of plant based thickeners, some are better or worse. Is powdered cellulose further from the plant than corn starch or agar or guar gum. Is the way in which it is processed potentially harmful in any way? I think this is the more pertinent question.

    I don’t know the answers for thickeners, but I believe that’s the problem with some of the chemicalization of plant products. For instance, and perhaps I’m wrong here, High fructose corn syrup is just a sweetener, but it’s a worse sweetener than, say, raw sugar, in that the processing which makes it “high fructose” also makes it absorbed faster in the body and wreaks more havoc on your insulin regulation, right?

    I don’t really know, I’m asking. Love your posts. Glad you’re back.


    • anglachelg says:

      Hi Sanct,

      I guess I would fire back what does “further from the plant” mean? This gets to the hysteria over “processed” vs “natural” foods. There is nothing inherent in refining a substance that would make it “bad” if what you’re doing is isolating a set of chemicals. This is the foundation of all food preparation – concentrating nutrients and making the food substance more digestible. The dangers are in concentrating a substance such that a previously harmless ingredient is now provided at a dangerous level, or else that in the process of concentrating the ingredient, some kind of adulterant is introduced which itself is dangerous. Think mixing melamine into milk powder. It raises protein levels and it’s poisonous.

      Next, what happens to food when it gets into your gut? Talk about denaturing! That stuff gets ground up, pulverized and broken down into constituent elements way smaller than anything General Mills can do. It comes out the other end as super concentrated shit. Literally. Your digestive system breaks down food into constituent chemical components – that’s its purpose.

      I myself think the hoo-haw over HFCS is complete and utter bullshit, promulgated by people who have way too fucking much time on their hands and whose food supplies are safe. How is it a “worse” sweetener? That it is absorbed faster? What NIH or FDC peer-reviewed study shows this? Or is it just an assertion by the food paranoiacs? If it is absorbed faster, what is the rate of absorption? Is it statistically significant? Think of the assertion above about powdered cellulose being a “filler” vs. the truth that it a trace ingredient at best. I can fully believe that HFCS is absorbed faster than other sweeteners, but is the rate meaningful? Facts are not meanings. The condition of being “raw” does not confer “goodness”. That is a moral assertion, not scientific fact.

      Food preparation is food processing. Food ingestion is food processing. The food industry makes some truly revolting products, but what counts as icky is highly personal. I find McDonald’s hamburgers to be “meh” – not great, not awful, something safe to eat when on a road trip. I find green smoothies to be vomit-inducing no matter who makes them, and there is no way on God’s green earth that I would consume raw milk.

      As for arguments of better or worse, the determination is all in the evaluation criteria. What counts as better or worse? That’s really what I’m trying to get at. I can see that large scale food production and distribution may use, for reasons of efficiency, cost, and food safety, ingredients that do not make sense for an individual cook to use. That does not *as such* mean the ingredients are bad in the sense of harmful to the consumer, though they may be less appetizing. And “less” is a relative measure. Palatability is in the mouth of the eater. There are gourmet foods that are perfectly safe to eat that I consider inedible. Like, who the fuck would ever eat blue cheese? That stuff is in an advanced state of putrefaction! Gah! Yet, millions of people consider it a delicacy.

      “Chemicalization” is a totally meaningless label, but it sure sounds scary and gets emotions running high. There’s no stable definition or measure for it. Isn’t something like molecular gastronomy “chemicalization” in spades since it is a cooking method that works at very base levels to manipulate taste, texture, and appearance? Cheetos have nothing on some of the stuff served at El Bulli. When people recoil at “ingredients I can’t pronounce,” I respond, you need to improve your reading comprehension levels, plus I’d much rather see a specific chemical name than “natural flavorings” or “spices”. A chemical I can look up. People with true food allergies (not food paranoia) need those labels to protect themselves. A lot of chemicals are traditional ingredients that have been purified and can be used in lower and measured levels vs. the by-guess-and-by-golly method of toss stuff in until it *should* work. You know, before food safety laws and regulations about accuracy in labeling was how food was produced?

      I’m all for food safety. If anything, I want MORE attention paid to that, more funding for food inspection, more independence of regulatory bodies, more evaluation of industrial food ingredients via controlled, reproducible, peer-reviewed tests. What I’m sick unto death over is upper-class, first-world-problem pearl clutching over food that wealthy white Americans think is icky and low-class.

      None of which is a criticism of you for raising the questions! 🙂 We have to ask them, we have to think critically of them, and we have to be careful about emotional moralism standing in for rationality and science. There’s plenty to criticize in modern food production and distribution, and plenty to improve, without going off into food paranoia.

      Thanks for coming by,


  2. Jay says:

    If 3 percent of your burger is additives, fifty percent must be even better, right?


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