Cellulose gum or carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC) is a widely used ingredient in food products. For this reason, many additive-conscious vegans want to know whether or not it’s derived from animals, or involves animals in its production.1
Is it vegan? Yes, cellulose gum is considered vegan. It’s simply a derivative of cellulose—the tough plant matter found widely in grains products like wheat. It’s found in a wide range of food and non-food products where it serves various functions like thickening and stabilization.
For you chemistry geeks, the cellulose undergoes substitution reactions wherein hydroxyl groups are added.
So, anyway, cellulose gum is just a modified version of the cellulose found in plants. Thus it can’t be derived from animals because cellulose is found in the cell walls of plants, and animals lack cell walls.
I mentioned above that cellulose is what gives the tough texture to grains. It’s actually a type of dietary fiber—the tough, non-viscous kind that undergoes little to no fermentation by gut bacteria.
Regular cellulose (not cellulose gum) is non-viscous meaning that it doesn’t form a gel in water because it’s not water-soluble. But cellulose gum is chemically modified to be more water-soluble which gives it useful properties as a food additive.10
What we’ll do here is list the types of products you’ll find it in along with the function it serves.
Cellulose Gum in Vegan Foods
As a Thickener and Emulsifier (Vegan Ice Creams, Etc.)
Celluloses gum or CMC is used in food as a thickener or viscosity modifier, and to stabilize emulsions in products like ice cream—both plant and dairy ice creams.
Ice cream manufacturers like to use it because it eliminates the need for churning or extremely low temperatures eliminating the need salt and conventional churners.2
Viscosity is just the state of being thick and sticky due to internal friction. If something has a high viscosity it means that the material is thick and would pour out of a container very slowly if at all.
Thickeners as Fat Substitutes
Thickeners are used to substitute fat in low-fat products. Fat not only makes foods tastier but actually improves mouthfeel. If you want to make a low-fat version of a food, gums may not enhance flavor, but they do come in handy when it comes to improving mouthfeel.
This allows manufacturers to reduce the oil content of foods as the gel mimics some of the “rheological” properties (the properties that affect flow) associated with high-fat emulsions.
They aren’t typically used as fat substitutes directly. Rather they tend to be used at low concentrations (0.1–0.5%) where they form gels that increase product viscosity.3
Other thickeners used for this purpose include:3
- Gum arabic
- Guar gum
- Methoxy pectin
- Xanthan gum
I wrote an article on guar gum and it’s vegan status you can check out here.
The gels that are produced from the cellulose derivatives, specifically, have a number of desirable fat-like properties, including:4
- Fatlike mouth-feel
- Stability—they help the ingredients stay nice and mixed.
- Texture modification
- Increased viscosity
- Glossy appearance
The fat-like effects are so realistic that cellulose derivatives like CMC are also used by the meat industry in products like breakfast sausages, hamburgers, hot dogs, soups, and gravies.5,6
Gluten Free Products
Cellulose gum is a common replacement for gluten in gluten-free baked goods. CMC has a lot of the same properties.7
As discussed in the article on gluten, there’s a group of proteins known as glutelins and prolamins. They provide strength and elasticity to dough allowing it to form a web-like network that stretches out to accommodate expanding gasses during the leavening and baking process.
Like gluten, cellulose gum provides an elastic texture which helps dough ingredients to adhere and expand which allows the dough to rise and provides structural integrity.
Bread and Biscuits
Another way CMC is used in bakery products is to impart certain properties to breads and cakes. Cellulose gum improves the quality of loaves and increases their volume.
It’s also used as an emulsifier in biscuits. It allows fat to be dispersed uniformly throughout the dough mixture and makes the dough easier to work with—in the use of molds and cutters, etc.
This results in a well-shaped end product without distorted edges.
It also tends to be used as a fat replacement in baked goods because it’s more economical than animal-derived fat ingredients (egg yolks, etc.). This is great because it turns a lot of otherwise off-limit foods into “accidentally vegan.”
Cellulose gum is also used in candy as it provides a smooth dispersion of ingredients and improves quality and texture.
Chewing gums, of course, make good use of CMC and other cellulose-derived gums.
Cellulose Gum in Non-Food Products
Obviously, folks are equally concerned with the vegan-friendliness of non-food items. For this reason, many vegans encounter cellulose gum in the ingredients list of common everyday items.
Cellulose gum is a common constituent in many non-food products, such as:
- Water-based paints
- Diet pills
- Reusable heat packs
- Various paper products
These products make use of cellulose gum because it has a high viscosity, and is nontoxic. It’s also considered hypoallergenic because the main sources of fiber it’s derived from is usually cotton linter or softwood pulp.8,9
Other Common Uses
- Laundry detergents. Its use in laundry detergent is a bit different. In washing clothes, it’s useful as a soil suspension polymer. These polymers are used to create a negatively charged barrier to soils.
- Artificial tears. Cellulose gum is commonly used as a lubricant in eye drops.
- Ice packs. Cellulose gum is often used in ice packs because it results in a mixture with a lower freezing point, giving it more of a cooling capacity than ice.
Anyway, that sums it up for cellulose gum. Until next time.
- Codex Alimentarius Commission (2016). “Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose (Cellulose gum)”. GFSA Online. FAO.
- Bahramparvar, Maryam; Mazaheri Tehrani, Mostafa (3 March 2011). “Application and Functions of Stabilizers in Ice Cream” (PDF). Food Reviews International. 27 (4): 389–407.
- Food Additives (Page 318). Alfred Branen – Marcel Dekker – 2002
- Penichter, K. A., McGinley, E. J. 1991. Cellulose gel for fat-free food applications. Food Technol. 45:105.
- Frye, A. M., Setser, C. S. 1993. Bulking agents and fat substitutes. In: Low-Calorie Foods Handbook. Altschul, A. M. (Ed.), Marcel Dekker, Inc., New York.
- Keeton, J. T. 1994. Low-fat meat products—technological problems with processing. Meat Science 36:261.
- Stanford, John (January 2012). “Food Processing Technologies for Reduction of Fat in Products” (PDF). Food & Health Innovation Service. Scotland Food & Drink
- “CP Kelco Cellulose Gum / Carboxymethyl Cellulose”
- “Sodium Carboxymethylcellulose – The Ideal Hydrocolloid for Bakery & Dough Products” (PDF).
- Gropper, Sareen S.; Smith, Jack L.. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism (Page 112).