Cellulose Definition and Structure

Cellulose is a a largely indigestible polysaccharide (a complex carbohydrate), composed of thousands of glucose molecules [1].


In the human intestine, cellulose acts as an insoluble fiber, which can absorb water and thus increase the bulk of the stool. Cellulose cannot be digested, but can be partly broken down (fermented) by beneficial large intestinal bacteria into gases, and short-chain fatty acids, which can be absorbed [3]. Cellulose is not an essential nutrient, which means you do not need to consume it in order to be healthy.

Foods High in Cellulose

Cellulose is naturally present only in plant foods [2]:

  • Cereals: whole grain wheat, barley, oats, cereal bran, bulgur, quinoa, cornmeal, brown rice
  • Cabbage family of vegetables, for example, arugula, bok choy, Brussel’s sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, radishes, rutabaga, Swiss chard, turnips, turnip greens and watercress
  • Fruits: avocado, berries, apples and pears with skins
  • Legumes: peas, chickpeas, beans, lentils
  • Nuts
  • Potatoes with skins
  • Seeds: pumpkin, sunflower and chia seeds with hulls

Modified Cellulose as a Food Additive, Pill Binder or Laxative

Cellulose extracted from wood pulp or cotton and chemically processed with acids or alkali can be added as a creaming agent or thickener to shredded cheese (parmesan), ice cream, fast food (burgers), powdered drink mixes and other commercial foods. Some types of modified cellulose are soluble and some insoluble [8]. Cellulose can be also produced from corn cobs or stalks, soybean hulls, sugar cane stalks, oat hulls, rice hulls, wheat straw, sugar beet pulp, bamboo, jute, flax and ramie.

Modified cellulose is also used as a filler in tablets and as a laxative.

Chart 1. Cellulose Types





Bacterial cellulose*

Additive (nata, kombucha) Possibly GMO** Insoluble [25]

Carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC) or cellulose gum

Additive, laxative E466 ; GRAS*, GMO Soluble [5]

Enzymatically hydrolyzed carboxymethyl cellulose

Additive E469, GMO Soluble [17]

Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose

Additive GRAS, GMO Soluble [7]


Additive E460, GMO Insoluble

Cellulose acetate (CA)

Additive, binder GRAS, GMO

Ethyl cellulose (EC)

Additive, binder E462; GRAS, GMO Insoluble [18]

Ethyl hydroxyethyl cellulose (EHEC)

Binder Insoluble [15]

Hydroxypropil cellulose (HPC)

Additive E463, GMO

Hydroxypropil methyl cellulose (HPMC) or carbohydrate gum

Additive E464; GRAS, GMO

Methyl cellulose (MC) or vegetable gum

Additive, binder, laxative E461; GRAS, GMO Soluble [16]

Ethyl methyl cellulose (EMC)

Additive E465, GMO Soluble [20]

Microcrystalline cellulose (MCC) or cellulose gel

Additive, binder E460i, GMO Insoluble [14]

Powdered cellulose

Additive, binder E460ii; permitted by FDA, GMO Insoluble [19]

Regenerated cellulose casing (RCC)

Hot dog skin Approved by FDA, GMO

Chart 1. Legend: *Bacterial cellulose is produced by bacteria. **Bacteria and cotton may be genetically modified organisms (GMO). Cellulose with E-numbers (E466, etc.) is approved in EU. GRAS = Generally Recognized As Safe by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Is cellulose good for you?

Constipation. In various studies, cellulose naturally present in foods did not significantly affect gut functions, but “cellulose” supplements (not further specified) increased the bulk of the stools and had a laxative effect [3,9,10,24].

Weight loss. In one study, cellulose supplements CM3 did not slow gastric emptying or increase the feeling of satiety in obese people [11].

Blood glucose and cholesterol. Cellulose naturally present in foods, which is insoluble fiber, does not likely lower blood lipid and glucose levels [3,8]. Supplements containing modified glucose, which is viscous soluble fiber, when consumed with meals, may reduce blood glucose spikes after meals; it may also reduce blood total and LDL cholesterol levels, when taken regularly for several weeks [8], but more research is warranted.

Cellulose Side Effects and Dangers

Cellulose from foods probably does not cause any significant side effects. Cellulose from supplements may cause mild abdominal bloating, excessive gas and loose stools [26]. In individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), foods high in cellulose and cellulose supplements may worsen symptoms [21]. Modified cellulose may trigger allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.

Cellulose-Nutrients Interactions

Modified, purified cellulose from supplements, in large doses (>10 g/day), but not likely cellulose from foods, may decrease absorption of calcium and iron [3].

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why can humans digest starch but not cellulose?

Humans have intestinal enzymes that enable the digestion of starch, but do not have enzymes that digest cellulose. Normal intestinal bacteria can break down (ferment) some cellulose though.

2. Starch vs Cellulose

Made of Glucose Glucose
Digestible Yes No
Calories/g 4 <1
Sources Cereals, potatoes Cereal bran, fruits with peels, green vegetables, peas

3. Is cellulose a prebiotic?

According to Journal of Nutrition, cellulose is currently not considered a prebiotic [13].

4. Are cellulose supplements gluten-free?

Cellulose is mainly produced from wood pulp and cotton, so cellulose supplements should be gluten-free but check the product information leaflets.

5. Is cellulose vegan?

All types of cellulose, except bacterial cellulose are vegan.

Similar Nutrients

  1. Belitz HD et al, 2009,  Food Chemistry
  2. Coulate, TP, 2009,  Food, the Chemistry of its Components
  3. Cummings, JH, 1984, Cellulose and human gut  Gut
  4. List of GRAS substances  U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  5. Carboxymethyl cellulose  London South Bank University
  6. Cellulose acetate  Drugs.com
  7. Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  8. Lattimer, JM et al, 2010, Effects of dietary fiber and its components on metabolic health  PubMed Central
  9. Dietary, Functional and Total Fiber  US Department of Agriculture
  10. Liu, BH et al, 2009, Efficacy of cellulose on functional constipation  PubMed
  11. Berthold, HK et al, 2012, Effect of a Cellulose-containing Weight-loss Supplement on Gastric Emptying and Sensory Functions  Wiley Online Library
  12. Select Committee on GRAS Substances (SCOGS) Opinion: Carboxymethyl cellulose  U.S. Food and Drug Administration
  13. Roberfroid, M., 2007, Prebiotics: the concept revisited  The Journal of Nutrition
  14. Microcrystalline cellulose  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  15. Ethyl hydroxyethyl cellulose  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  16. Methyl cellulose  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  17. Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose, enzymatically hydrolyzed  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  18. Ethyl cellulose  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  19. Powdered cellulose  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  20. Methyl ethyl cellulose  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  21. Bijkerk, CJ et al, 2004, Systematic review: the role of different types of fibre in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome Wiley Online Library
  22. Current EU approved additives and their E Numbers  Food Standards Agency
  23. Keshk, SM, 2014,  Bacterial Cellulose Production and its Industrial Applications  OMICS Online
  24. Hamilton, JW et al, 1988, Clinical evaluation of methylcellulose as a bulk laxative  PubMed
  25. Chawla, PR et al, 2008, Microbial cellulose: fermentative production and applications  Hrcak
  26. Bianch, M. et al, 2002, Effects of guar gum, ispaghula and microcrystalline cellulose on abdominal symptoms, gastric emptying, orocaecal transit time and gas production in healthy volunteers  PubMed

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