Just a couple of months ago, cheese lovers were in an uproar when it was revealed that quite a few brands selling "Parmesan" cheese were filling their faux fromage with cellulose, a.k.a. wood pulp. The outrage!
But while strangely dusty Parmesan doesn't pair well with San Marzanos, ingredients derived from wood may actually have a place in the future of food. Scientists are now saying yogurts, baked goods, and meats of the future could all actually benefit from the addition of a little bit of wood.
Researchers at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland published a report stating that wood-derived polymers like xylan, fibrillated cellulose, and lignin could improve the texture of foods and could even help lower cholesterol.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the report suggests that many of the foods that could benefit the most are decidedly soft. The VTT highlighted yogurt as one food that could really benefit from wood products, saying that xylan, derived from birch pulp, could help create smoother yogurts. Even better, researchers observed that xylan broke down slowly in the digestive system, meaning eating xylan yogurt could be a less fart-y experience than eating the yogurts of today.
Fibrillated cellulose, on the other hand, could be used as a thickening agent, and would be useful in fermented dairy products—again, yogurt seems like a likely beneficiary. Tests also indicated that incorporating fibrillated cellulose into foods could potentially help lower cholesterol.
Thankfully for the lactose intolerant among us, it isn't just yogurt that can benefit from incorporating wood into foods. The VTT used lignin—a type of complex polymer that serves as a support tissue in certain types of plants—to make muffins, and found that it served as a "surprisingly efficient" substitute for eggs and egg yolks. It also proved to be an effective emulsifier in mayonnaise, and helped bring out juiciness in meat. Michelin-starred chefs of the world take note: lignin also can improve the texture of foams.
Some wood-based ingredients have been legal for a long time—cellulose, the offender in the fake Parmesan cheese incident, among them. Others, like lignin, would need approval from regulatory bodies before making its way into food products. But some day, buried amongst the xantham gum and yellow number 5 on the ingredient list of some of your favorite foods, you might find wood-based ingredients that will actually make your food smoother and tastier. Who wood have thought?