The Truth About Methylcellulose in Food: What You Need to Know

Methylcellulose in food: green trays with different kinds of food

More and more, people are paying closer attention to what they eat. They're mindful of their food choices and spend a little more time than before skimming ingredient lists and food labels. But sometimes, giving an ingredient list a once-over is a little less straightforward. They can be confusing or feel like a flashback to a high school science class. (Bueller? Bueller?)

While we won't cover everything you might see on a food label, in this article, we're going to explore one ingredient you’re likely to see – methylcellulose. We'll explain what it is and how it's made, talk a bit about safety, and reveal which food brands you might want to avoid while you shop. 

What Is Methylcellulose?

So, what is methylcellulose? Aside from being a mouthful, methylcellulose is a non-allergen fiber and chemical compound additive used as a thickener in cosmetics, supplements, and foods. And it’s not just in plant-based products, either. 

You might see methylcellulose in salad dressing, sauces and condiments, bread and pastries, ice cream, and plant-based meats. It can also act as an emulsifier, helping ingredients that would otherwise separate bind together. This emulsification process enhances food functionality, giving things a pleasing texture or consistency. 

Curious about other labels where you might see methylcellulose on the ingredient list? Check your medicine cabinet. Methylcellulose also acts as a bulk-forming laxative to alleviate constipation. Yep, that's right. The same ingredient in a bottle of Citrucel is also in that package of Impossible Burger patties.

How Is Methylcellulose Made?

Methylcellulose in food: scientist holding a glass flask

Since it's a chemical compound, it can be tricky to discuss the formulation process without getting too technical. Still, we promise to do our best to sound a little more like Bill Nye and less like a science professor. OK, let's get to it.

It's not a stretch seeing methylcellulose on a food label and thinking it's a natural ingredient. Perhaps even more so since you might already be familiar with cellulose, a natural fiber found in fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods. Yet it isn't, even though it kind of starts out that way.

Methylcellulose is made in a lab by heating up cellulose — a polymer made up of various glucose molecules — with a caustic solution (like sodium hydroxide) and then treating it with methyl chloride. A few chemical reactions later, and voila, non-toxic methylcellulose is born.

Interestingly, methylcellulose is water-soluble and will dissolve in cold water but not hot. Heating it will turn it into a solid (which is why some brands use it as a binder). However, because it forms a "gluey layer" in cold water, it's typically mixed into hot water first and then cooled down so this can be avoided. Not exactly a straightforward process.

What Is Methylcellulose Used For?

We’ve already touched on where you can find methylcellulose in food, and this same ingredient is used well beyond items you might pick up from the supermarket. Here are a few more ways methylcellulose is used: 

  • Personal Care Products: Methylcellulose's viscosity helps your toothpaste, shampoo, and artificial tear drops have the consistency they do. Occasionally this consistency is created with other cellulose derivatives. Some supplement companies use methylcellulose as a substitute for gelatin.
  • Glue and Binder: You might be using methylcellulose in your next home decor or craft project as it's the main ingredient in wallpaper paste. It also functions as a water-soluble glue, holds pastel crayons together, and even works to clean off old glue from bookbindings.
  • Constructions Materials: Truly multi-purpose, methylcellulose has several applications in construction. This ingredient is usually added to mortar mix, so it has better water retention and overall performance.
  • Special Effects: Because methylcellulose is non-toxic, it sometimes plays a part in creating movie magic. If you've ever noticed slime in a movie or TV show, there’s a good chance it's an emulsion of methylcellulose and water. Fun fact: “Ghostbusters” used it to create the slime effect left behind on the characters.

Is Methylcellulose a Safe Ingredient?

Using methylcellulose as a food additive is approved by the FDA. According to a request made by the European Commission, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also concluded that methylcellulose in food is safe for humans and animals. It’s important to note that some of the studies used to evaluate the safety profile of methylcellulose had flawed methodologies and, as such, were not included in the data sets assessed by the EFSA. 

Even though there are several ways to use methylcellulose outside of food products, the food industry is comfortable using it for a few reasons. 

Unlike other naturally derived binders, methylcellulose is allergen-free. It's also gluten-free, non-toxic, flavorless, colorless, and odorless, making it an excellent gelling agent for various foods. Most methylcellulose will pass through the body undigested.

On the flip side, it's just that — indigestible. Unlike those natural alternatives, it doesn't contain a single nutrient that benefits your body. It's also important to remember that since methylcellulose doubles as a laxative if taken in sufficient quantities, you could run the risk of dehydration or other side effects such as stomach cramps.

Wholesome Alternatives for You and Your Family

Person eating Nowadays chicken nuggets

The easiest way to avoid methylcellulose is to be diligent about checking ingredient lists and reading food labels. And it's even more essential with plant-based meats. Some of those meatless veggie burgers and nuggets aren't as nourishing as they seem. In fact, several popular brands rely on methylcellulose as a binder, including Beyond Meat patties, Impossible Foods, Gardein, and Morningstar. 

While its purpose is to enhance texture, methylcellulose in food doesn't add any nutritional value, and it's synthetic, which gives new meaning to the concept of "fake meat."

Aside from reading ingredient lists from start to finish, keep an eye out for non-GMO or USDA-certified organic labels to ensure a quality product without questionable additives

Thankfully, there are wholesome animal-free alternatives you can choose for you and your family that are made with real and recognizable ingredients. Nowadays nuggets are 100% plant-based, made with organic peas, and additive-free (no methylcellulose here!). 

You get to enjoy 13 grams of protein in each serving of crispy nuggets made with just 7 simple ingredients. They’re also a good source of iron, potassium, and fiber. Not all meatless nuggets are created equal, and having the information you need makes shopping for plant-forward foods even easier.

Should You Choose Foods With Methylcellulose?

Only you can decide how important it is for you and your family to avoid methylcellulose in food. We think having more information will help you make a decision. Once you understand what certain ingredients are and how they're made, it's easier to see what will be the best fit for you and your family.

The world of plant-based meat alternatives is growing and thankfully more nourishing options are part of that growth. Even if there are some ingredients you'd rather avoid or aren't sure of in other brands, Nowadays nuggets give you peace of mind. These delicious, satisfying, and wholesome nuggets are an easy way to include more plant-based foods in your kitchen. Be sure and check out our Crave Better Blog for more plant-based living tips and recipes!

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