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.