RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In a time when people actually read food labels and are curious to know exactly what's in their food, stories about pink slime in beef and a chemical found in yoga mats showing up in bread are big news. Most recently, a spate of online articles have pointed to wood pulp, which, it turns out, can be found in lots of processed foods. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us to explain how wood pulp gets mixed up into everything from shredded cheese to breakfast biscuits.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there Renee.
MONTAGNE: Good morning.
AUBREY: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: (Laughing) All right, breakfast time. Let's talk. You've got some examples. What have you got there?
AUBREY: So I have got a fruit smoothie from McDonald's, a biscuit sandwich from the grocery store. I've got here some shredded cheese and some breakfast cereal bars.
MONTAGNE: And these foods that you brought in with you - these breakfast foods have wood pulp?
AUBREY: That's right, yes. All of these foods contain what's referred to as cellulose. Now, cellulose is found in plants. It's basically fiber. And one of the most common sources happens to be wood pulp. Manufacturers basically grind up the wood and extract the cellulose. And there are several reasons that food manufacturers add it to food. One is to sort of bulk up the fiber without adding calories, as with these breakfast bars here. In the case of the smoothie I've got here, it's to give texture. And when cellulose is put into this shredded cheese here, it stops the little pieces from like clumping together. It's what the food industry calls an anticaking agent.
MONTAGNE: But how safe is it?
AUBREY: Well, the Food and Drug Administration weighed in on the use of cellulose decades ago, back in the mid-1970's, giving it the green light. An FDA committee basically said, hey, there's no reasonable ground to suspect hazard here, given that this is basically plant fiber. And it moves right through our digestive tracts without being absorbed. I reached out to a food scientist, John Coupland, at Penn State and he agrees. He says, you know, look, we're eating cellulose in fruits and vegetables all the time. It's what gives plants their structure. His view is that it may sound strange that the cellulose that's added to foods extracted from wood. But it would be cost prohibitive to get it from other food sources, such as soybeans or corn. So Coupland says, you know, if you want to worry about something in the food supply, worry about too much salt, sugar or fat and not about small amounts of cellulose.
MONTAGNE: So does that mean we're likely to see more cellulose being used in foods, even though it's used in a lot of products right now?
AUBREY: Well, that's hard to say. The industry has grown over the last decade as demand for added fiber has gone up. But on the other hand, it sort of runs counter to the trend towards clean labels. This is the idea that foods should have as few ingredients as possible. So the thinking is, you know, if you want fiber, you want to eat more whole grains as opposed to processed foods with added fiber. And if you want shredded cheese, shred it yourself from the blocks so that you're not buying products with additives. In the end, you really do have a choice. If you don't want to eat wood pulp, you don't have to.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Allison Aubrey thanks very much.
AUBREY: Thanks, Renee.
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