Starting at the top, what is cellulose anyway?
Cellulose is the building block of living plants. It’s made from extremely long chains of the same simple sugar, glucose (you might know it as dextrose). If you chop up the chains to their individual links, you get glucose. Nothing else. It is however, extremely difficult to do that. Bacteria can do it, which is why herbivores host bacteria in their guts to break the cellulose down into the glucose all our bodies use as our energy source. When we humans eat cellulose in whatever form (lettuce, apple, celery… methylcellulose) we can’t digest it and it goes through our bodies as a non-digestible fibre. This actually helps with the smooth working of our guts.
The cellulose used to make methylcellulose comes from living plants; trees to be precise. A regular, consistent, sustainable source; the trees that are cut down to make the cellulose pulp are grown specially and replaced.
Methylcellulose: The Science & The Applications
Why mess about with it?
Unfortunately, for the food industry, cellulose is pretty boring – it doesn’t do much apart from absorb water like a sponge. It doesn’t dissolve, thicken, form gels or emulsify… it basically just sits there. In order to make it do something useful, we have to add a bit of chemistry to the mix. So, the manufacturers of methylcellulose take the cellulose and add methyl groups to the multi-glucose backbone. Methyl group in chemical terms means a carbon atom with 3 hydrogen atoms attached. In the case of methylcellulose about 30-33% of the possible reaction sites are used.
Once the methyl groups are on board, the cellulose starts to do some really interesting and really useful stuff. Things that the plain cellulose does not do.
I’m not going to get much more chemical than this. If you want more details, contact me.