Food & Drink

What is that powder on shredded cheese, and is it bad for you? A dietitian explains

Claims that cellulose — the powder found on shredded cheese and other foods — is bad for you are going viral. Here's what to know.

A recent smattering of viral videos across Instagram, Facebook and TikTok are telling people to avoid eating packaged, preshredded cheeses, claiming that the powdered substance they're covered in to prevent clumping is actually “wood shavings,” “bark” or “saw dust."

In the comments sections of such videos, many viewers have shared their alarm at the claims, even saying that they'll no longer buy shredded cheese. But what do dietitians think?

“These kinds of videos stir up fear in viewers who are already skeptical about our food system and aren’t sure who to trust,” registered dietitian Kristina Cooke tells “When information is not coming from a scientifically sound and credible source, it’s almost like playing a game of telephone that gets out of hand.”

The most important thing to know about the claims is that both preshredded and block cheeses are healthy and safe to eat, experts say. Read on to learn more about the substance found on shredded cheese, known as powdered cellulose, and its uses.

What is the powdered substance on shredded cheese?

The powdery or finely grained substance that coats pieces of packaged, shredded cheese is an organic structural compound called cellulose (sometimes labeled as cellulose gum, carboxymethyl cellulose, or microcrystalline cellulose). As a food additive, it prevents the cheese from clumping together in packaging.

“It’s also used in some products as a calorie reducer, an anti-caking agent, a thickener, and to add texture,” Caroline Susie, a registered dietician and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells And because the compound absorbs excess moisture, it also helps prevent mold growth, thereby extending the shelf life of some products.

The cellulose used as a food additive is usually made from wood pulp or cotton lint, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an independent food and health watchdog group.

“The edible cellulose ... used in food is extracted and removed from the non-edible portion," explains Cooke. "(It) is molecularly the same cellulose that exists in virtually all plant matter.”

In fact, cellulose has the important function of giving plant cells the rigidity they need to maintain their shape, so varying amounts of it are found naturally in all plants and plant-based foods.

The CSPI rates cellulose as safe to consume.

What foods contain cellulose?

In addition to shredded cheese, cellulose is sometimes added to:

  • Bread
  • Ice cream and other frozen desserts
  • Pancake syrup, condiments and sauces
  • Granola bars
  • Yogurt
  • Dried spices
  • Processed meat
  • Meal replacement shakes
  • Fiber supplements

Cellulose is naturally found in fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.

“Celery is especially high in cellulose,” Amy Goodson, a nutritionist and registered dietitian at The Sports Nutrition Playbook, tells “If you’ve ever had stringy pieces from celery stuck between your teeth, you’ve experienced cellulose firsthand.” 

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Is cellulose dangerous to consume?

In either natural or additive form, cellulose is “generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration,” says Jen Messer, a registered dietitian and president of the New Hampshire Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. If it wasn’t, she says it wouldn’t be approved by the agency nor be allowed in literally thousands of products sold in grocery stores across the country. 

She says humans lack the enzymes to break cellulose down, so it passes through the digestive system without being absorbed. Cellulose also counts as dietary fiber, though Messer says the amount added to shredded cheese “is so negligible it doesn’t contribute significantly to your daily fiber intake.”

In larger quantities though, naturally occurring cellulose plays a vital role in digestive health and helps promote regular bowel movements. It can also help improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels and aid in feelings of fullness, called satiety, which is why it’s often added to meal replacement shakes. 

So, is buying block or shredded cheese better?

There are no differences between the health benefits of either cheese type, the experts say.

“Both options contain the same nutrient-rich goodness that cheese provides, including calcium, protein, vitamin B12, selenium, niacin, riboflavin and iodine,” says Goodson.  

The other experts agree, telling the only differences one needs to consider between block and shredded cheese are related to cost, convenience and taste. 

For instance, the additives and preservatives used in shredded cheese “can slightly affect the flavor, making it less fresh tasting than freshly grated cheese to some people,” says Goodson.

It’s also usually more expensive per ounce compared to block cheese, and Messer notes that freshly grated cheese “may melt more smoothly” than preshredded cheese. 

On the other hand, the upsides of packaged shredded cheese include less moisture overall — so it is less likely to mold and generally lasts longer in the refrigerator than block cheese. It also usually takes up less space and doesn’t require clunky kitchen tools, such as a cheese grater.

“Purchasing pre-shredded cheese is also convenient because it saves time and effort in both food preparation and cleanup,” says Messer. 

Cooke agrees: “If time, capacity, effort and extra dishes are barriers to your eating a food that might benefit you, make it easier on yourself and purchase shredded cheese. But if you enjoy the satisfaction of preparing more of your meal, opt to purchase block cheese instead.”

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