Cellulose gum is a common ingredient in the food and pharmaceutical industries. Manufacturers use it as a thickening agent, a stabilizer, and an emulsifier in various products. It has several benefits and risks.

Although it has no nutritional value, cellulose gum is generally a safe food additive when people consume it in small quantities.

As processed foods have become an increasingly common part of the Western diet, people have become more curious about food additives such as cellulose gum.

In this article, we look at what cellulose gum is, which products contain it, its benefits, and its potential risks.

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Cellulose gum is a chemically modified form of cellulose, a polymer that naturally occurs in plant cell walls. It primarily derives from wood pulp, also known as saw dust, or cotton. It is also called carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC) or E466 as a food additive.

Cellulose gum is a versatile ingredient that can improve the texture of food products, prevent caking and clumping, and extend shelf life.

Manufacturers use cellulose gum in a wide range of everyday products, including:

  • Processed foods: Numerous processed foods contain cellulose gum to enhance texture and stability. A few examples include:
    • ice cream
    • frozen dinners
    • diet foods
    • salad dressings
    • sauces
    • grated cheese
    • baked goods
  • Dairy products: Low fat dairy items such as yogurt and cream cheese frequently contain cellulose gum to improve consistency and increase creaminess.
  • Beverages: Some beverages, including fruit juices, require cellulose gum to create a consistent appearance and prevent separation.
  • Gluten-free baking: Gluten-free baked goods often depend on cellulose gum to replicate the texture of gluten in wheat-based products.
  • Pharmaceuticals: In the pharmaceutical sector, cellulose gum serves as a binder in tablet formulations and as a thickening agent in some liquid medications.
  • Cosmetics: Certain cosmetics such as creams and lotions contain cellulose gum to create a consistent texture.

Cellulose gum has several advantages in the food and pharmaceutical industry, including:

  • Reduced caloric content: Substituting fat with cellulose gum in some recipes can reduce calorie content while still being appealing to consumers.
  • Gluten replacement: Cellulose gum can help create gluten-free products that emulate the texture of their gluten-containing counterparts for individuals who are sensitive to gluten or have celiac disease.
  • Texture enhancement: It functions as an effective thickener and enhances the texture of various products.
  • Stabilization: It can prevent ingredients from separating by stabilizing emulsions in foods such as salad dressings and sauces. In the pharmaceutical sector, it can ensure the even dispersion of active ingredients in some liquid medications.
  • Safe for most people: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally recognizes cellulose gum as safe for use in food and pharmaceuticals.

While cellulose gum offers various benefits, there are also prospective risks associated with its consumption.

Several public health authorities recommend limiting the consumption of ultra-processed foods as a way of limiting exposure to nonessential food additives.

Risks of over-consumption of cellulose gum include:

  • Digestive disorders: Individuals with some digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), may be more sensitive to cellulose gum, potentially increasing symptoms.
  • Gastrointestinal side effects: In some individuals, excessive consumption of cellulose gum can lead to stomach discomfort, particularly among people with sensitivities to high fiber foods. This may lead to:
  • Reduced nutrient absorption: Cellulose gum may hinder the absorption of particular nutrients in the digestive tract, particularly minerals such as calcium and magnesium. Prolonged and excessive consumption could potentially result in nutrient deficiencies.
  • Processed food concerns: Cellulose gum commonly features in processed foods, which frequently lack essential nutrients and may have a high amount of added sugars and unhealthy fats. Regular consumption of processed foods may contribute to an unbalanced diet and obesity.
  • Allergic reactions: While rare, some individuals may be allergic to cellulose gum, with symptoms including itching, hives, or swelling.
  • Cardiovascular disease: A 2023 study suggests that a higher consumption of cellulose gum E466 links to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.
  • Potential for overconsumption: Cellulose gum is in a wide range of processed foods, and individuals who frequently eat these products may consume larger quantities of cellulose gum than they intended.

Cellulose gum is a versatile food additive that derives from plant sources. It is in many processed foods, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics.

While cellulose gum offers several benefits for manufacturers, consuming it comes with potential risks, such as stomach discomfort, reduced nutrient absorption, the possibility of overindulgence in processed foods, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

As with any food additive, moderation and awareness are important when consuming cellulose gum. Individuals with particular dietary concerns or sensitivities may wish to consult a healthcare professional or nutritionist to help them make informed decisions about including products that contain cellulose gum in their diet.