Do we actually eat food anymore? Delicious, full of fibre, minerals, vitamins and everything else that food should be? No chemicals, no preservatives, no hormones injected into it to make it look bigger? Stuff that grows in season and drips with juices and goodness? The more I look into the food industry, the more frightened I get.

Cheese is a relatively new introduction into India, but Indians have taken to it with a passion. Pizzas, pasta, cheese balls, shredded cheese, sandwiches, cheese sauces and spreads, etc. All the big brands are here. Parmesan cheese is used as a topper for so many foods.

Now people have taken Walmart and Kraft cheese to court. The contention is that the so-called “cheese” sold by these companies is full of wood pulp. Tests shows that the “100 per cent cheese” contains as much as 10 per cent cellulose, according to a complaint filed in Manhattan federal court — Moschetta v. Walmart Stores, Inc. The US Food and Drug Administration allows a maximum of four per cent. Kraft has 3.8 per cent. Kraft is also facing a similar lawsuit — Lewin v. Kraft Heinz Foods Co — filed in San Francisco federal court.

Powdered wood pulp is known as cellulose in the industry (you make paper from it). Look at the ingredients listed on your cheese product.  The processed food industry loves it. It is cheap, helps stabilise food, prevents shredded cheese from clumping, makes ice-cream creamy and pre-made milk shakes smooth. It is used not just in cheese but jams, processed meats, even cod liver oil, pizza and barbecue sauce, puffed cereals.

The main benefit is that it is cheap. As the prices of other ingredients like flour, sugar and oil rise, food manufacturers are increasing the inexpensive wood pulp content. The fact that it has no food value at all, and is created from a chemical base, is irrelevant. So you pay the same for the packaged cheese/milk product but your food gets increasingly valueless and nasty.

Parmesan cheese has the most sawdust. The hard Italian varieties are the most likely to have fillers because of their expense. Parmesan wheels sit in curing rooms for months, losing moisture, which results in a smaller yield than other cheeses.  While 45 kg of milk might produce 4.5 kg of cheddar, it makes only 3.5 kg of parmesan. Bloomberg published an extensive expose. In that report, an industry insider estimated that 20 per cent of hard cheese production was fraudulently labelled and, in the case of some cheeses, “less than 40 per cent of the product was actually a cheese product”.

The appeal of wood pulp as an additive is that it is bland, white and repels moisture. Therefore, it is preferred over potato starch. The sales of cellulose have risen by 85 per cent in the last two years due to the growing popularity of processed food products in China and India. Companies are using cellulose to increase the fibre in their food. Cellulose gives food more water, more air, a creamy feeling in the mouth, makes it thicker and more stable. This is why it gets added to non-fat and low-fat foods, like low-fat ice-cream, sour cream, yoghurt and non-dairy creamers, among others. It gives the mouth a feel of creaminess when the real cream is removed. 

Industry spokesmen are not embarrassed. “As commodity prices continue to rally, and the cost of imported materials impacts earnings, we expect to see increasing use of surrogate products within food items. Cellulose is certainly in higher demand and we expect this to continue.” In fact, some products are now removing as much as 50 per cent of the fat from products such as cookies, biscuits, cakes and brownies, and adding cellulose in as a filler instead. It also extends the shelf life of processed foods. Food producers save as much as 30 per cent in ingredient costs. More companies are converting from things like oat or sugar cane fibres to cellulose.

Suppliers of cellulose have made efforts to extract cellulose from a wide range of plants, including oat and soybean hulls, corn stalks and even hemp. But the cheapest is wood from trees. Their argument is that while wood pulp gives you nothing in terms of food, it also doesn’t harm. After all, we take syrup from trees. So why should cellulose be any different?

The answer is that this is not a process that grinds wood into pulp like flour from wheat. This is how it is made: Cellulose comes in different forms. There is powdered cellulose. Microcrystalline cellulose is listed on food labels as MCC or as cellulose gel. Carboxymethyl cellulose, or cellulose gum, is another form. All three differ in the amount of water they capture to give each food a different texture. 

Powdered cellulose is made by cooking raw wood pieces in various chemicals to separate the cellulose. Modified versions go through extra processing, breaking down the pieces in acetic acid. This is not the cellulose you get from eating broccoli and beans. This is a chemically created cellulose made in a laboratory. You cannot make it in the kitchen.

Cellulose, which is a plant fibre, is not digestible by human beings as they do not have the necessary enzymes, so it simply adds bulk to food. But cellulose brings nothing in terms of any nutrition to the body. It is disturbingly unnatural to have useless wood pulp in your food. You get zero value for money. Basically, manufacturers are just replacing food with cheap dust. If it is not absorbed by the body, why eat it? Is the point of eating to nourish the body? Would you eat a paper bag if you were starving?

Yes, cellulose is found in plant matter. But here you are not eating a whole plant. You are extracting one chemical from it and adding it to animal products like milk, cheese and meat. This has unforeseen consequences. For instance, it has been found that nitrates, which are also found normally in plants, when extracted and put into meats combine with amino acids to create carcinogens. Fructose can be found in small doses in every fruit. But if you isolate the fructose and add it in high concentration to soft drinks, you have a recipe for disaster. The deadly nightshade family includes potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. No problem. But if one were to extract the alkaloid in them and put it into other foods, they become lethal.

Don’t buy shredded cheese like parmesan. Buy whole food. When you take the fat out of traditionally fatty foods, then you are going to have to replace it with junk. Cellulose gum is in so many pre-packaged foods and it will not disappear till you protest by not buying the product.

These are some companies using cellulose in their processed dairy and meat products: McDonald&’s (from sandwiches to smoothies and everything in between), Kraft Foods, Nestle, meat processor Tyson Foods, Kelloggs, KFC, Yum, Oreo, Pepsi, Pizza Hut, Sara Lee, Sonic, Taco Bell, Weight Watcher&’s International, Wendy&’s, Dole Food Fiber One, Pillsbury, Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines Cake Mixes, Jimmy Dean, Jack in the Box… I am sure Indian companies are using it as well.

By the way, cellulose is not the only problem in packaged shredded cheese. A pesticide called natamycin is also thrown in as an anti-fungal ingredient.