Discovered accidentally by Dr. O.A. Battista, avicel is a microcrystalline cellulose powder. Available both as a fine powder and a gel, it can be used to replace dry or fat-based ingredients in food preparation and adds no taste, calories, smell, or nutrition to the food. Wood is chemically treated to extract naturally occurring cellulose to create avicel. This purified cellulose can then be used in food preparation, makeup, and sunscreen products.
Batitsta made his discovery when working to develop a strong rayon tire cord. He thought that if he could break the cellulose into extremely tiny pieces that he would be able to use it to create a strong chord. Using a blender to mix cellulose and water, he hoped the smallest pieces would sink to the bottom after the electric blender had done its work. After a quarter hour rest period, the substance in the blender resembled thick white custard. These were not the results he was expecting, so he continued with further tests.
Cellulose, found abundantly in grass and trees, has no ill effects on cows, termites, and other consumers. It was tested to see if it could also be used in food for people, and eventually approved as an inert filler in food.
In gel form, avicel can replace a portion of the fat in food. It works equally well in ice cream and salad dressing, adds no calories, and controls ice crystal growth so frozen items stay smooth and creamy. Salad dressing, sour cream, and other emulsions containing fat retain their glossy appearance and rich flavor. Honey, syrup, sauces, and butter have all been successfully paired with this substance.
The powdered form of avicel can replace up to half the flour needed to bake a cake or a loaf of bread. It is not soluble in liquid, so it retains its properties in cooking. Blind taste tests showed that tasters could not distinguish the taste of the enhanced food from the regular-recipe food. As a non-food, inert filler, it does not change the flavor or masque any flavors or textures.
Discovered more than two decades ago, avicel has continued to be a boon in the food industry. Both wet and dry products can be produced with lower calories without sacrificing flavor and texture. The pharmaceutical industry uses it as filler in pills, and it has even made its way into sunscreen and makeup. This product stabilizes spray on sunscreen without diminishing the effectiveness.