On June 30, Quartz’s Devin Cohen alerted the world that “There is a secret ingredient in your burger: wood pulp.” Having perused the ingredients lists of McDonald’s, Burger King’s, and other fast food chains’ menu items, Cohen noticed that many of them contained cellulose, a dietary fiber that is sometimes derived from wood. Cohen called cellulose’s spread on fast-food menus “stealthy” and described the fiber as “difficult to avoid.” Why you should want to avoid cellulose, on the other hand, Cohen didn’t say, other than to note that cellulose has “no nutritional value” and that “some studies suggest that microcrystalline cellulose may have adverse effects on cholesterol.”
Very quickly, the story spread. “Is there wood pulp in your burger or taco?” asked the L.A. Times’ Jenn Harris. “McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell And More Have Wood Pulp In Food,” announced the International Business Times. Upworthy imitator RYOT took things to the next level by asking readers to take action, declaring, “Fast food loaded with wood sucks, especially since it’s part of the reason one in three American children are obese.”
This media meme, catching on like wildfire burning up so much delicious wood pulp, is not only alarmist but 100 percent misleading. The causes of childhood obesity are multiple and complex, but I’m pretty sure cellulose isn’t one of them: It’s pure fiber, so it contains no calories. Cellulose is a natural component of all plants’ cell walls and is therefore in contained in every fruit or vegetable you might care to eat.* As Refinery 29’s Sara Coughlin put it in a rare sane response to the “wood pulp” hysteria, “Made up of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon, cellulose is actually the most abundant organic compound on earth.”
It’s certainly possible that unusually high doses of isolated cellulose, like those given to rats in the study Cohen links to, could have adverse effects, but there is no reason to think that the small amount of cellulose contained in a McDonald’s hamburger is any worse for you than the small amount of cellulose contained in a carrot. In fact, given the fact that it’s a non-caloric plant-based fiber, it’s probably much better for you than most of the other ingredients in a Big Mac. After all, one of the things that almost certainly does increase cholesterol is more well known: hamburgers.
But the fact that “wood pulp” is benign and possibly even beneficial as a dietary additive isn’t the only thing that makes the recent scourge of articles odd. Cohen and his many aggregators make it sound as though powdered cellulose is another one of those gross ingredients that fast-food chains sneak into their menu items, like pink slime. But cellulose isn’t just in fast food—it’s in a huge proportion of packaged foods. Manufacturers put it in ice cream, bread, cheese, and salad dressing, among aisles full of other grocery store items. And the reasons for this are not so nefarious: Cellulose has the ability to thicken foods, prevent clumping, and improve creaminess without affecting flavor much. It seems weird to focus solely on fast-food chains as a culprit of sneaking it into our diets when most Americans probably get more dietary cellulose from Stop & Shop than Taco Bell.
This is not to say that fast food chains shouldn’t be more transparent about the additives and fillers they put in their food, as Taco Bell recently was when it posted an FAQ on its website about the ingredients in its taco meat. Nor is it to say that concern about food additives is never warranted. But if anything McDonald’s shouldn’t be using less plant-based fillers in its burgers—it should use more.
Correction, July 2, 2014: This post originally stated that cellulose is a natural component of most plants’ cell walls. It is a natural component of all plants’ cell walls.