What Is Wood Pulp, and Why Is It In Our Food?

“Wood pulp” sounds kind of gross, doesn’t it? It seems like something that should only be in a lumber yard, not in our food.

wood chip pile feature image

The substance goes by “cellulose” and “sawdust,” too, but those labels are not any more appetizing.

Chances are you have ingested a fair amount of wood pulp throughout your life. Don’t worry, though. In small doses the ingredient is harmless. It has no nutritional value, but it can be slightly useful for people who are trying to lose weight or improve digestion. Most forms of cellulose are natural, plant-based, and a source of bulky fiber that makes people feel full.

Many food product brands such as Kraft rely on cellulose to prevent pieces of shredded cheese from clumping, among other uses. Think about popular goods like cans of parmesan cheese. Without wood pulp, the cheese would tumble out of the can in a big block. You can also find it in popular brands that sell tomato sauce, ice cream, bread and dozens of other staples.

So if it isn’t hurting anyone — and even has some indirect health benefits, and allows us to enjoy tasty parmesan cheese — what’s the problem? The origin of wood pulp should offer an idea of why the ingredient has become controversial.

During the 1700s European bread makers realized they could cut costs and feed more people by infusing their goods with sawdust.

“At some point some clever miller was like, ‘Hey, what if we combine the flour with sawdust?’” said Penn State food historian Bryan McDonald. “‘We’re selling stuff by weight, and people don’t really have a good way of knowing what’s flour and what’s sawdust.”

Because of their efficient production, the sawdust-users eventually ran other bread makers out of business. Once people realized the high amount of sawdust had negative health effects, however, European authorities created regulations and defined exactly what qualified as bread. Nonetheless, the practice of using sawdust spread across the world and eventually evolved into the modern technique of cooking wood pulp to extract useable cellulose.

Today an acceptable level of cellulose is 2-4%, according to Dean Sommer, a cheese technologist at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisconsin. Unfortunately there are still many manufacturers who try to cram cheese full of as much wood pulp as possible. Some of them lie about the ratio and try to pitch the products as healthy by emphasizing the fact that they contain fiber.

In 2016 Bloomberg broke a story about Castle Cheese Inc., a company that was advertising its parmesan as 100% and then filling it with wood pulp. The former president plead guilty to FDA violations, and shortly after the company filed for bankruptcy. Despite these types of crackdowns, dozens of brands still use more than 4% cellulose in their cheese products.

Hundreds of years later, honest brands that don’t use wood pulp are still struggling to compete. To address the issue, experts such as American Cheese Society Director Nora Weisner have encouraged people to buy and grate 100% blocks of cheese instead of relying on pulpy cans of parmesan.

As a consumer you might want to think about what matters to you. By purchasing wood pulp-free products, the cheddar you spend will ultimately get you more cheese and less sawdust.

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