You’ve probably heard that fiber is an important part of a healthy diet, and, if not, you’ve almost certainly noticed the “Dietary Fiber” line on the “Nutritional Facts” label required on most packaged foods in the United States. (Unless you’re not American, in which case, look at this.) The Mayo Clinic explains that an appropriately high amount of fiber in one’s diet can help keep you regular, assist in weight and cholesterol management, and help control blood sugar levels. So it’s no surprise that food manufacturers have tried to find ways to add more fiber to foods where they can — that is, without making the products worse or more expensive. And if you read the ingredients, you may find an additive which does exactly that. It’s called cellulose. But you probably know it by a more common, less science-y name:
If you didn’t expect wood pulp to be part of your diet, rest assured that you’re not alone — and this isn’t a new development, either. In 1979, a bread manufacturer got into some hot water after news broke that it had been using cellulose (under the term “powdered cellulose”) in its bread, all in an effort to make the product a “high-fiber” alternative. A report from the Columbia News Service explained:
Fresh Horizons, a product with the arguable surname “bread,” was invented in 1976 by Continental Baking Co., the folks who brought you Wonder Bread. It is advertised as having 300% more fiber and 30% fewer calories than whole wheat bread.[. . .]
After water and white flour, the ingredient used in the greatest amount in Fresh Horizons is something called “powdered cellulose,” which is genteely described on the package as being “refined from a naturally abundant wood source.”
Indeed, the stuff comes from a lumber company in New Hampshire and is milled from hardwoods — maple, oak, and ash.
While the Food and Drug Administration allowed for the use of cellulose, another government agency objected to Continental’s behavior. The FTC, per the New York Times, required that Fresh Horizons advertising state, explicitly, that “the source of the fiber is wood.” After all, the FTC explained, “consumers would not expect to find fiber derived from wood as an ingredient in a bread.”
But consumers have been unperturbed (or, perhaps, we didn’t even notice the message). Over the decades since, cellulose has become an increasingly common ingredients, even if it has flown under the radar. In 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that cellulose can be found in shredded cheese, chocolate milk, ice cream, and many other products. In June of 2014, Quartz reported that wood pulp was an additive across both McDonald’s and Burger King’s menus, as well as on the menus of other such restaurants. And a few weeks later, NPR noted that fast food wasn’t unique to the wood pulp game: Organic Valley, a provider of organic cheeses, used it as an anti-caking agent — it keeps your shredded cheese from clumping together.
So, yeah, you’re eating wood. But don’t worry — there’s no evidence yet that it’s dangerous, although Quartz reports that further tests are in the works.
Bonus Fact: One place you won’t find a loaf of bread — high fiber or otherwise — is aboard the International Space Station. In order to keep crumbs to a minimum — you don’t want them floating around! — astronauts use tortillas instead of sliced of bread.
From the Archives: The Greatest Thing Since 1928: A brief history of sliced bread.
Related: 375 grams of cellulose fiber. Yep, it’s also a nutritional supplement.