NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Are you getting what you pay for on your plate?
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 (read: 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.
Cellulose is virgin wood pulp that has been processed and manufactured to different lengths for functionality, though use of it and its variant forms (cellulose gum, powdered cellulose, microcrystalline cellulose, etc.) is deemed safe for human consumption, according to the FDA, which regulates most food industry products. The government agency sets no limit on the amount of cellulose that can be used in food products meant for human consumption. The USDA, which regulates meats, has set a limit of 3.5% on the use of cellulose, since fiber in meat products cannot be recognized nutritionally.
"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," Michael A. Yoshikami, chief investment strategist at YCMNet Advisors, told TheStreet. Manufacturers use cellulose in food as an extender, providing structure and reducing breakage, said Dan Inman, director of research and development at J. Rettenmaier USA, 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. 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. It also extends the shelf life of processed foods. Plus, cellulose's water-absorbing properties can mimic fat, he said, allowing consumers to reduce their fat intake. Perhaps most important to food processors is that cellulose is cheaper, he added, because "the fiber and water combination is less expensive than most other ingredients in the