There is an ingredient in the food of McDonalds, Burger King, and many other fast food restaurants that people do not realize is there, and it goes by the name of microcrystalline cellulose (MCC) or powdered cellulose or to be more exact. Although not quite wood pulp (which would be cellulose and lignin), it has essentially the same nutritional value. This substance is anti-caking, emulsion-stabilizing, and cling-improving and it is used under a variety of different names such as powdered cellulose, cellulose powder, methylcellulose, and cellulose gum.
This non-absorbable fiber is now seeing widespread use after the industry has been slowly and increasingly incorporating it into food products. This compound is now found in items such as buns, cheeses, sauces, shakes, cakes, rolls, fries, onion rings and even smoothies, just to name a few.
The cost effective nature of this filler has caused many fast food chains to increasingly use less actual chicken in their chicken and less real cream in their ice cream. In a list of fast food chains that have the highest number of products containing cellulose, McDonalds is at the top of the list, with 14 of their menu items having cellulose in them. These items include popular choices such as fish fillets, chicken strips, and biscuits. Burger King comes in at number 2 on the list, with 13 of their menu items containing cellulose.
A lot of the cellulose items such as BBQ sauce, honey mustard, and cheese blends are found in multiple items throughout the menu, making it hard to avoid the filler. These cellulose-based ingredients are non-digestible: wood pulp that has no nutritional value. There are some studies that suggest that microcrystalline cellulose might have effects on cholesterol, but without any clear negative impacts the FDA has approved powdered cellulose for human consumption in moderate amounts.
Humans do not have the proper enzyme necessary to digest cellulose. Grasses and hay are especially rich in cellulose, and both are indigestible by humans (even though humans can digest starch). Some animals, such as termites as well as herbivores such as cows, horses, and koalas, are all capable of digesting cellulose, even though these animals themselves do not have an enzyme that digests the material. These animals host microbes that can digest the cellulose for them.
But, why are companies adding wood to our food? One possible reason is to increase profits and hide price inflation. In order to avoid raising the price of the food they serve, it is becoming more common for business to charge the same price but offer smaller portions, or even replace the food with a version containing fewer real ingredients, such as adding wood pulp even though it offers no nutritional value. It is becoming more important than ever to closely monitor the ingredients of the food you buy, because you are likely consuming more additives than you realize.