As everyone knows by now, wood is a vital component in the cheesemaking process as a surface for aging. But what you might not know is that some makers are actually putting it in your cheese, too. That’s right; it’s in your cheese. From McDonalds to some artisan brands, cellulose, an extract made from wood pulp, could be present in your cheese. Typically, it’s used to prevent your favorite shredded snack from clumping, and adds fiber content to boot. The dairy’s still in there, but so is plant matter (and no, this does not count as a vegetable).
You may be horrified, but adding cellulose isn’t as sordid as it sounds. In 2013, the FDA passed down approval to food companies, determining–with the help of the Dow chemical company–that ethyl cellulose was “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) for human consumption and use in food. It’s indigestible in the human body, mitigating all primary health concerns. Even before then, the baking industry promoted cellulose as a healthy and safe fiber supplement for bread and other baked goods. Today, it’s the primary texturing and anti-clumping agent for shredded cheeses like Sargento and Organic Valley’s vast selections. Without it, you’d have a mushy, sticky mess in the bag, which is certainly not good eats.
Even if the extract is pivotal to modern food as we know it, it’s still hard to separate the image of cellulose from the wood pulp that makes paper. To respond to this, Penn State food scientist John Coupland in an exposé with NPR said that the same chemical is present in all vegetables, whether they’re asparagus, onions, or celery, or anything else. To grind up those, though, would be a waste of good, useable food.
“A good way to think about it is to ask: Would our food be any better or worse if the cellulose used was sourced from another plant?” And Coupland says the answer is no. “Cellulose is just a molecule, and probably one we want more of in our diets.”
In the same article, Elizabeth Horton of Organic Valley expressed the necessity to use cellulose above all other anti-clumping agents. According to her, it’s the only one that seems to be cost-efficient aside from also being all-natural, and the most effective option. Likewise, a cellulose maker, John Bodner of Sweetener Supply Corp., raised concerns over using other materials besides wood pulp:
And now, there are additional challenges to using nonwood plants. For instance, lots of customers, Bodner says, are demanding non-genetically modified products. If the cellulose industry were to use corn stalks, leaves and husks or sugar beets, it would be a challenge to keep the supply chain free of genetically modified crop residue.
Unlike so many other chemicals that are added to our food today, cellulose doesn’t seem to have any negative effects or consequences. Even so, there are some cellulose-free, pre-crumbled products on the market, like artisan cheese powerhouse Vermont Creamery’s new line of crumbled goat cheeses. The only question seems to be: would you like some wood with your cheese?
Photo Credit: Maggie Starbard via NPR