If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I try to dispel myths and switch the focus to learning how to eat in a healthy way (balance, variety, moderation, enjoyable) versus obsessing over any one ingredient, food or food group.
Recently I enjoyed an afternoon with a group of women. The topic of using pre-shredded cheese came up: “I don’t buy pre-shredded cheese. You should always just shred your own.” I, and the other registered dietitian in the room, exchanged glances, knowing we were both thinking: “Why would you avoid this product?”
“Because it has cellulose in it.”
We told them they shouldn’t worry about it. Two things –
- If you want to always shred your own cheese, fine. Go for it!
- But don’t make choices based on an unwarranted fear of something on an ingredient label. Instead, start asking yourself: What is this ingredient really, and is it harmful? Is using this product going to help me eat a better diet overall (perhaps allow you more time to cook a meal at home, or allow you the ease to have ingredients on hand). Is avoiding this product going to significantly improve my dietary intake and health?
As registered dietitians we’re trained in food and nutrition, but also continue to read, review, and take courses to stay up to date on the many aspects of our food supply, human eating behavior, and the applications of clinical nutrition. This information is delivered to our inbox every day. Some critics think we’re all in bed with the food industry (I’m not sure I even know what that means since we our training includes study of “food” and nutrition) but the bottom line is – people eat. It’s our job to know what’s in food, and help consumers understand the potential benefits or harm from eating too much or too little of various foods.
So let’s take a look at a typical package of shredded cheese and its ingredient list (packaged shredded cheese is a staple in my refrigerator – or freezer. I’m a cheese-lover, and also always have bricks of cheese as well, and sometimes shred that – but for busy weeknight tacos or quesadillas, or as quick flavor booster, or for a quick-I-have-to-be-at-at-basketball-game-in-30-minutes-lasagna, – pre-shredded works for me):
Sargento’s 2% fat 4-Cheese Italian Blend: Reduced fat low moisture mozzarella cheese, reduced fat smoked provolone cheese, asiago medium and/or asiago fresh and Romano cheese, potato starch and powdered cellulose (to prevent caking), natamycin (a mold inhibitor)
So this packaged shredded cheese contains – cheese; and two or three other ingredients that may scare you for no good reason: Potato Starch, Cellulose, and Natamycin.
Why would a food company want to add the anti-caking ingredients? Well, to provide customers with a consistently good product that doesn’t clump and therefore can stay in your fridge longer (for folks who don’t have time to run to the grocery store every other day).
Now I realize where this fear comes from. When you do a search for “cellulose” all sorts of insane posts come up: “18 Grossest Ingredients” (never believe something to be true from anyone who identifies something as “gross” or “yucky”), or “Companies that sell you products with wood”.
Cellulose is actually naturally occurring ingredient, and like the potato starch clearly suggests, it is also a starch (which is a complex carbohydrate).
Natamycin, also safe, is an antimicrobial that prevents mold and yeast growth, and thereby enhances a product’s shelf life. It’s reliable and safe to the human body.
I can’t understand why there is all of this food-fear mongering going on. I don’t see what true purpose it serves. Unless you want to completely make everything you eat from scratch (bake your own bread, make your own butter, grow your own vegetables and grains – and if you do, please invite me over for dinner!), a few packaged foods won’t kill you. The ingredients used are safe, and have a purpose (the whole idea of utilizing some packaged food is not just the time-savings, but also the ability to keep things on the shelf for longer periods). Ingredients, such as cellulose, help allow this. They may prevent caking, attract liquid (prolonging shelf life and improving quality of the product), improve texture, or prevent crystallization.
Most people are quite challenged to the follow the healthy diet recommendations made by the experts. People’s lives are busy, they don’t have time to cook dinner, they may not know how to cook dinner, they have stressful jobs or personal lives; but yet they really do want to improve their diets and health. So for this reason, utilizing some convenience foods may help support your big-picture goals.
I’ve said many times: There is no one healthy diet.
I’ve also quoted my former Food Science teacher: “Food is chemistry.”
Don’t fear food
I do not keep a list of foods that I absolutely would “never eat”. I have a list that I may not like or enjoy, but not a “Don’t eat that. It could kill you!!” sort of list. Nothing is forbidden. Nothing. I don’t view food that way, and I don’t think anyone should. Can you eat too much of something? Absolutely. Would it be a bad idea to sustain yourself on gummy bears and toast? Sure. But don’t demonize food in general.
So what do you think? Are you still afraid of pre-shredded cheese? Or is it the least of your worries?