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#AskAChemist: Why is @KINDSnacks being mean to methylcellulose?

This week on Ask A Chemist, a tweep with a penchant for KIND bars wants to know why the snack company is calling a chemical names.

KIND goes on to say…

Here at KIND, we use ingredients that you can see & pronounce. That means there are a lot of ingredients we won’t put in our bars: ingredients like methylcellulose.

Odd, considering the CEO seems to pronounce “methylcellulose” just fine and we can definitely see it… but I digress…. what’s methycellulose done to earn KIND’s unkindness? I mean, just look at methycellulose! It’s so cute!

methylcellulose  (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Methylcellulose kinda looks like…

Just a pinch of methylcellulose… (gif from giphy)

Methylcellulose might be a bit of a crustacean impersonator, but this chemical isn’t from shellfish. It’s made using cellulose, which is found in nearly all plants. Cellulose is chain of glucose molecules linked together to form a polymer.

cellulose (image from Purdue)

Cellulose helps gives things structure and strength – from teeny plant cell walls to cotton to big ol’ trees. We’re surrounded by cellulose, but we’re not very good at digesting it. Humans don’t have the enzymes needed to break up the links that hold cellulose’s glucose units together.  What about methylcellulose? It’s made by reacting cellulose with methyl chloride under alkaline conditions. Methylcellulose is cellulose with some methyl groups (-CH3) substituted in for some of a glucose’s Hs. This chemical make-over does bupkis to the linkages that hold the-now-methylated glucose units together, so we don’t digest methylcellulose either. This begs the question…

Calm down, bro. (image from Tumblr)

Good question. What happens to the cellulose and its food-friendly derivatives, like methylcellulose, after we gobble up? The FDA has the scoop.

Cellulose is a major constituent of many foods of plant origin. As such it is a significant portion of the diet, but is neither degraded nor absorbed. Cellulose derivatives considered in this report are virtually unabsorbed and little or no degradation of absorbed and little or no degradation of absorbable products occurs in the human digestive tract. In man, consumption of large amounts appears to have no effect other than providing dietary bulk, reducing the nutritive value of such foodstuffs and possibly exerting a laxative effect.

In humans, virtually 100 percent of orally ingested methyl cellulose can be recovered in the feces within four days, indicating that absorption does not occur.

Methylcellulose’s  “laxative effect” has been studied and is pretty well-known. “Methylcellulose, in a daily dose as low as 1 g, is an effective laxative,” reported researchers back in 1988 in the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences. Most folks don’t get a gram of methylcellulose by snacking on foods that contain the chemical. Usually, you’ve got to go overboard on methylcellulose-containing foods or take an over-the-counter product like Citrucel to experience its laxative effects.  Why is methylcellulose a good laxative? Well, for some of the same reasons it’s used in food.

I know, right?! (image from epicrapbattlesofhistory)

Methylcellulose (MC) does kind of a cool thing in water, described in the book Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Handbook: Production and Processes, edited by Shayne Cox Gad.

MC is insoluble in hot water but slowly swells and forms viscous colloidal dispersions in cold water. Gels can be prepared by initially mixing the methycellulose with half the volume of hot water (= 70 ºC) followed by addition of the remaining volume of cold water…Higher processing or preservation temperatures reduce the viscosity of formulations, which regain their original state on cooling to room temperature.

Chemical cousins of cellulose are designated ‘gums’ and “…are used as gelling agents thickeners, and stabilizers” (Essentials of Food Science by Vickie Vaclavik and Elizabeth W. Christian). Those eschewing gluten probably recognize methylcellulose and its fellow cellulose derivative hydroxypropyl methylcellulose from gluten-free products or recipes. Chefs and foodies know methylcellulose is great for making food foams and gels.

Methylcellulose’s swelling, foaming, and gelling isn’t just limited to food. It also occurs upon digestion, as described by the NIH’s National Library of Medicine (NLM).

The bulk-forming laxatives generally swell in water to form a gel that serves to maintain soft, well-hydrated feces.

Is methylcellulose laxative role in bulk quantities why KIND thinks it’s gross? Who knows! In the video above, KIND’s CEO never says why methylcellulose is chemical non grata at KIND. It might have nothing to do with bulk methylcellulose – more than you’d get in a snack bar or maybe a BOX of bars. It might have more to do with KIND choosing not to use a thickening/swelling/bulking agent like methylcellulose to bulk-up their bars. Instead, it seems KIND bulks-up their bars by just adding more nuts, dried fruits, etc. That seems nice, KIND, to add more of the stuff we can digest and use as fuel. Now, can you drop the name-calling?

couldn’t resist (image from gif-central)

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Featured image created by author in PowerPoint

drrubidium

drrubidium

DrRubidium is an analytical chemist that spends her days finding needles in needlestacks. Also a science communicator, she focuses on the the science behind everyday stuff and pop culture.

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7 Comments

  1. November 3, 2015 at 6:51 am —

    So it’s… fiber?

    Good thing someone out there is producing granola bars without fiber. Wait, what? They still have fiber? They still have regular cellulose? Those frauds, trying to bulk up their food with indigestible fillers…

    If they really cared, they would process those grains a little more to remove ALL the cellulose, leaving us with nice, nutricious carbohydrates like glucose…

    • November 4, 2015 at 1:09 pm —

      Well, one of the carbohydrates in the group called ‘fiber’.

      You’d be surprised at how many people think removing fiber from fruits and vegetables to get juices is better than just eating the fruit or vegetable like you would without juicing. (Obviously how you would prepare it depends more on personal taste than nutrition, but excess juice intake is little different than soda.)

  2. November 3, 2015 at 7:56 am —

    Weird that they would pick on poor methylcellulose since they seem to be adding alpha-tocopherol to all of their bars, and while that is not too hard to pronounce (no harder then methylcellulose anyway) it still sounds pretty gross.

    • November 3, 2015 at 8:04 am —

      To be fair they are calling it Vitamin E which sounds a bit more appetizing (though not really).

      You would think that the target market for Kind bars would know what methylcellulose is since it is used as a substitute for gelatin in vegan products.

      • November 4, 2015 at 1:06 pm —

        Excess vitamin E intake (i.e., the amount in supplement pills) is linked to cancer. One ad hoc hypothesis is that it’s specifically excess intake of ?-tocopherol.

        • November 4, 2015 at 2:41 pm —

          They are using it as a preservative so I would doubt that it’s at supplement levels, but yeah the ‘OK’ stuff is probably worse for you than the ‘bad’ stuff.

  3. November 3, 2015 at 8:14 am —

    so, methylcellulose is gross, but phosphatidyl choline, phosphatidyl inositol, phosphatidyl ethanolamine, and phosphatidic acid are just peachy?

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