Powdered cellulose is an ingredient commonly found in foods you eat. In pre-shredded cheese, it acts as an anti-caking agent, keep the grated pieces separate. In ice cream, powdered cellulose is used as a thickening agent.
In any other context, you’d know powdered cellulose by another name—wood pulp.
Don’t freak out. Wood pulp is fibrous, plant-based, and completely natural.
Cellulose is the structural component in the cell walls of green plants. It’s what makes plants rigid, and it takes the same form in celery that it does in cedar.
Food manufacturers are finding more and more room for cellulose in their products.
While some food manufactures say they aren’t increasing the percentage of cellulose in their products, others are boosting the amount of fiber in their foods with cellulose and other ingredients. Companies can save money by using it, even though it costs more by weight than conventional ingredients. Cellulose gives food “more water, more air, a creamy feeling in [the] mouth with less of other ingredients,” and only a very small amount is needed.
One manufacturer of cellulose, GRINDSTED, describes a number of uses for the additive. Here’s what they say about their cellulose gum in ice cream:
In ice cream, GRINDSTED® Cellulose gum (CMC) prevents the formation of coarse ice crystal, even upon long storage periods with low, controlled temperatures. It gives the ice cream excellent melting properties and a good control of overrun.
Even Breyers, a company with a rich heritage in traditional ice cream production, is using cellulose gel in its products (only a few, though).
Though powdered cellulose is a natural ingredient, it’s something I try to avoid for the same reason I avoid artificial additives—it’s a cheap filler to cut corners. However, cellulose is often used to add value rather than replace it, and therefore it’s something I don’t often mind.