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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Twisted words

Okay, I haven't been posting much lately, as I've got a lot of things on my plate, but I was having a debate with someone over an article that was getting too long for the format.  That and I'm seeing the article being passed around by others as if it were God's Own Truth, so I figured I'd finally hunker down and write about it here.

This is the article.

15 Food Companies that Serve You 'Wood.'

This is typically followed by comments about how Teh Big Bad Food Companeez are Out to Killz Us (yes, I mock). 

The problem?

The article is horribly misleading.  In fact, in light of something my debating partner pointed out about an assumption I had made, it's even more misleading than I originally thought.

The basic premise of the article is this.

Companies are using cellulose as filler in food.
Cellulose is wood pulp.
Companies are feeding us wood pulp (insert nefarious motives here).
These are fifteen companies and their products that use cellulose, therefore they are feeding us wood pulp, therefore you should refuse to buy these products or support these companies, or anything else where you see cellulose in the ingredients list.

Well, let's start from the top.  The article opens with this.

The recent class-action lawsuit brought against Taco Bell raised questions about the quality of food many Americans eat each day.

Chief among those concerns is the use of cellulose (wood pulp), an extender whose use in a roster of food products, from crackers and ice creams to puddings and baked goods, is now being exposed. What you’re actually paying for – and consuming – may be surprising.

Now, I will admit the mistaken assumption I made that was pointed out to me right here.  I hadn't followed the link at the top.  Since the writer went straight from the class action lawsuit against Taco Bell to writing about using wood pulp as an extender, I assumed that the use of wood pulp as an extender was actually part of the lawsuit.  Turns out it isn't.  At least not that you can tell from the brief piece linked to, with no link to a source.  It's talking about the use of filler and the accusation that there's more filler than beef in their seasoned Taco filling.  There is nothing to tell the reader that "Chief among those concerns is the use of cellulose (wood pulp)..."

So right off the hop, by going from the lawsuit to the use of wood pulp, the reader is lead to believe that Taco Bell is being used for using wood pulp as filler in their products.  This is false.  The accusation is that they were using a lot of filler in their seasoned beef.  Filler can be any number of things, and for all we know, that includes the seasonings in their seasoned beef.

Now, just as aside, I do most of my cooking from scratch.  When I cook ground beef, you know what I do?  I use fillers.  And seasoning.  Back in the old days, this was called "stretching" and was a way of stretching a small amount of meat to feed everyone in the family.  In the depression era, it wasn't unusual for the family meatloaf to have more filler than meat.  I have cookbooks from that era that share tips on how to stretch meat as far as possible.  Bread and bread crumbs were most commonly used.  Myself, I tended to use a combination of bread crumbs, milk, egg and whatever herbs and spices I had handy.  Unfortunately, I have family members who are lactose intolerant and one that's gluten intolerant.  So I don't use as much filler.  The result is a less flavourful meatloaf that tends to fall apart.  Those breadcrumbs act as a binding agent that also hold moisture and flavour.

Which brings me to the next point.  Do you know why breadcrumbs hold moisture?  Because they have cellulose in them.

Now, if you read this article, you are lead to believe that cellulose is wood pulp.  In fact, they are very specific about that.

Chief among those concerns is the use of cellulose (wood pulp)

Cellulose is virgin wood pulp  

It even goes so far as to differentiate cellulose from dietary fibre.

Cellulose adds fiber to the food, which is good for people who do not get the recommended daily intake of fiber in their diets, Inman said lied. 
I find the unexplained strikeout particularly revealing.  Right there, you are told that anyone who suggests cellulose adds fiber as a good thing is revealed to be a liar.

The writer goes on to further separate cellulose from fibre or anything other than wood pulp.

...powdered cellulose has a bad reputation but that more of his customers are converting from things like oat or sugar cane fibers to cellulose
So his customers are moving away from good, safe food based fillers, like oat or sugar cane fibers, to cellulose, which has already been defined for us as wood pulp and has a bad reputation.  What is that reputation and why is it bad?  We aren't told.

The article also tells us how the use of cellulose is a bad thing.  Most of this is through the use of leading language.  The use of cellulose in a wide variety of products "is now being exposed." It "is deemed safe for human consumption" by the FDA which "sets no limit on the amount of cellulose that can be used in food products meant for human consumption."  Oh, and I just love this guilt by association paragraph.

... a company that supplies “organic” cellulose fibers for use in a variety of processed foods and meats meant for human and pet consumption, as well as for plastics, cleaning detergents, welding electrodes, pet litter, automotive brake pads, glue and reinforcing compounds, construction materials, roof coating, asphalt and even emulsion paints, among many other products.
 You see?  If you're eating cellulose, even "organic" cellulose (note the scare quotes), you may as well be eating pet food.  Or plastic.  Or asphalt.  Or pet litter.  Isn't that just disgusting?

Booga Booga.

And, of course, we MUST bring up that other evil of food, fat.  Companies are feeding us wood pulp to pander to the weight loss crowd.

...allowing consumers to reduce their fat intake. to remove as much as 50% of the fat...

He said cellulose is common in processed foods, often labeled as reduced-fat or high-fiber...

So companies are basically accused of misleading/cheating/whatever their customers who want to avoid fat by feeding them wood pulp, instead.

And why are companies doing this?

Money, of course.

Perhaps most important to food processors is that cellulose is cheaper...

...the fiber and water combination is less expensive than most other ingredients... producers save as much as 30% in ingredient costs by opting for cellulose...

Of all the egregious statements made in this article, I find this note from the editor most fascinating.

[Note: Humans are unable to digest cellulose since we lack the appropriate enzymes to break it down. This is a food adulterant and another example of the wholly corrupt nature of the federal agency responsible for food safety but continues to prove itself more concerned with corporate profit. ~Ed]

Take the time to follow that link.  I'll wait.

Notice something?


Cellulose is a carbohydrate.  All plants have it.  Of course humans can't digest it.  We are not ruminants, with their specialized stomachs, bacteria and enzymes.  That's why cows eat grass and we eat cows. 

Now go to the bottom of that page.  Notice something else?  Where it talks about dietary fibre?  Right.  Dietary fibre - which is part of cellulose - is good for us.  Which also, according to the strikeout in the article, is a lie.

Ah, but wait!  Not only is this a lie, but according to the editor's note, it is a "food adulterant and another example of the wholly corrupt nature" of the FDA.  Why?  Because they are "more concerned with corporate profit" of course.  Implication: the FDA is controlled by the corporations.  Do they have proof?  Who needs proof?  The FDA did something the writer disagrees with, and that's supposed to be proof enough. 

The article then finishes with...

To that end, TheStreet rounded up a list of popular foods that use cellulose. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, and we suggest consumers read food labels carefully.

So what do you come away with from reading this?

Taco Bell is being sued for using filler.
Cellulose is used as a filler.
Cellulose is wood (implication: Taco Bell is feeding you more wood than beef)
The products listed at the end of the article contain cellulose.
Since cellulose = wood pulp, that means these companies are feeding you wood.

Or, to simplify it even further, this is the premise of the article.

1) Cellulose = wood pulp
2) Product X contains cellulose
3) Product X contains wood pulp.

So what's the problem?

The problem is right with item one.  Throughout the article, the writer maintains that cellulose is wood pulp, and even goes so far as to differentiate cellulose/wood pulp from fibre sources such as oats and sugar cane.  Cellulose is then painted as something horrible that shouldn't be in our food, even if we aren't getting enough fibre, because saying cellulose adds fibre is a lie.

Even if you followed the link in the editor's note, you are *still* told that using cellulose is bad and lead to believe the cellulose is wood pulp and wood pulp only.

This is the core of what's false and misleading about this article.

The other problem is the implication that cellulose is bad for us.  Yet we need cellulose, even though we can't digest it.

Although cellulose is indigestible by humans, it does form a part of the human diet in the form of plant foods. Small amounts of cellulose found in vegetables and fruits pass through the human digestive system intact. Cellulose is part of the material called "fiber" that dieticians and nutritionists have identified as useful in moving food through the digestive tract quickly and efficiently. Diets high in fiber are thought to lower the risk of colon cancer because fiber reduces the time that waste products stay in contact with the walls of the colon (the terminal part of the digestive tract). Read more

Because cellulose passes through your digestive tract virtually untouched, it helps maintain the health of your intestines. One way cellulose helps the intestines is that it clears materials from the intestinal walls, keeping them clear, which may help to prevent colon cancer. Cellulose is the fiber (or roughage) of which your cereal box says you need more.  Read more.

Cellulose is the substance that makes up most of a plant's cell walls. Since it is made by all plants, it is probably the most abundant organic compound on Earth. Aside from being the primary building material for plants, cellulose has many others uses. According to how it is treated, cellulose can be used to make paper, film, explosives, and plastics, in addition to having many other industrial uses. The paper in this book contains cellulose, as do some of the clothes you are wearing. For humans, cellulose is also a major source of needed fiber in our diet. Read more.

So if you sit down with a lovely salad, fresh from your own garden, you are eating cellulose.

If you crunch down on some fresh, organically grown vegetables or fruits picked up at the local farmer's market, you are eating cellulose.

If you eat some delightfully flavourful whole grain bread, with crunchy seeds and flax and other tasty bits like that in there, you are eating more cellulose than if you chowed down on a slice of white bread.





Barley?  Lentils?  Chick peas?  Kamut?  Spelt?


Oh, and yes, M, I was clumsy in my phrasing about making cellulose from rice.  That, by the way, is here if you want to see it.  I guess I'll have to remember to stop telling my family that I'm making rice, when in fact I am actually cooking it.  I had caught the clumsy phrasing but never got around to fixing it.

Now, in direct response to my debating partner (other points have been responded to above)....

I don't think this article misleads. I only agreed that it isn't as informative on all the aspects of naturally-occurring cellulose as you'd like it to be.
 Uhm.  No.  The article is pretty clear that cellulose = wood pulp.  That's not less informative.  That's misleading.  Of course wood pulp contains cellulose, and cellulose from wood may indeed be used as filler in food.  My argument was that the article maintains that cellulose *is* wood pulp, and that is what is the core of what is misleading.

I assume the writer has knowledge that the "cellulose" they are talking about is from wood.
 Why?  The writer bends over backwards to associate cellulose with wood pulp and differentiating it from anything else.  At that level of dishonestly, why assume the writer is being honest about anything else?  Or that the writer is doing anything other than assuming the cellulose in question is sourced from wood pulp?  The writer simply states that cellulose is wood pulp, then goes from there.  The writes gives nothing to tell us she knows that the cellulose used in the products list is actually from wood.  We are simply to assume it is.

I am baffled by your statement that you're not claiming there is no wood. 
 I have no idea if there's wood or not.  There is cellulose.  That cellulose could have come from wood.  Or it could have come from something else.  We don't actually know.  The writer simply tells us that cellulose is wood.  My claim is that this is misleading.  It is.  I don't know how much clearer I can get then that.

If your point is not that they're lying about the wood, why make all this fuss? I don't understand your motive.
 My point is that the article is misleading.  That in itself is not a big deal, I suppose.  The problem is that in the process, this article also attempts to speak with the voice of authority, makes a claim that it does not back up, then provides a list of companies and products and tells consumers to avoid those companies based on the writer's misleading claims about cellulose.  Then people who have bought into the highly charged lede and emotional claims start passing it around as if it were some great and wise truth.  It is maligning companies and products without evidence.

My motive?

I am no longer willing to let bullshit pass without comment.  When something as egregiously misleading as this article starts getting passed around, I'm going to say something.  Because not saying something is a sort of tacit approval. 

 Having gone over what the article does do, here's a bit about what the article doesn't do.

The article tells us the cellulose is bad but, other than talking about its use as filler and extenders, it doesn't tell us *why* it's bad.

The article tells us the cellulose is wood pulp.  There's even a picture of someone holding wood pulp.  Another thing about it that's misleading, since it implies that wood pulp is actually being used as filler, bringing to mind the image of that grey stuff in someone's hands is being mixed in with Taco Bell's seasoned beef, or mixed in with your yogurt and ice cream.  The cellulose is extracted and isolated into crystals or powder forms.  Wherever the cellulose came from, it is no longer that thing.  It is simply cellulose.  Does the source matter?  Well, it might from an ethical perspective (for example, the cell line used to make chemicals to enhance flavour and reduce calories used in some soft drinks originated from aborted babies.  It's generations away from the original cells.  Does that make it any less from aborted babies?  I don't know, but I don't think I can ever drink Pepsi again).  In this case, the source is supposedly from trees, and that's a bad thing.

Why?  We're not told.

I was told that it's because trees aren't food.  Except that people do eat trees.  We eat bamboo shoots and heart of palm.  We eat cinnamon and other barks as food or medicine.  First Nations have been eating the fresh shoots and inner bark of tamarack trees for centuries, and the starchy pith of the sago tree has long been an important food source. 

So why is cellulose from trees a bad thing?

It just is, apparently.

Even the use of fillers at all is assumed to be a bad thing, but again, why?  The use of fillers is common and can enhance a food.  Don't just tell me using fillers is bad.  Tell me why.  Make the case.  This article fails to do that.

Now, I can agree with the use of fillers can be a bad thing.  If I buy a pound of ground beef, I want it to be ground beef, not meat plus filler.  If, on the other hand, I buy seasoned beef, I expect there to be fillers of some kind.  Then it becomes an issue of how much is too much?  I don't want companies to be dishonest about what they put in food, but it doesn't help if the people railing against the companies are just as dishonest.

As to the types of fillers that are a problem, I have very little concern with the use of cellulose, even if it *is* from trees.  I am more concerned about fillers that are soy based (two out of four in our household cannot tolerate soy), dairy based (three lactose intollerant members in my household) or grain based (one household member who cannot do gluten). 

It's not cellulose that should be the concern here, and by being so misleading, the writer misses the boat completely and does her own cause a disservice.

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