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Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, also known as hypropmellose or E464, is a "semisynthetic" form of cellulose used to make gel caps. It's "semisynthetic" in that it begins as cellulose, the carbohydrate building block of plant fiber. It's chemically modified so that when it is heated, it becomes "flexible" but not "flowable." This allows it to be used keep powdery mixtures from gumming up the machines that process them.

Hydroxypropyl methylcelluose is also popular because it is the best alternative to beef or fish gelatin for making vegetarian gel caps for herb and vitamin products. Observant Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists all have religious restrictions on the use of animal products.

Hydroxypropyl methycellulose is a plant product.

It also has physical properties that make it a "pseudoplastic" superior to other "gelatin" capsules. It has a naturally low water content, so it does not dry out and become brittle, spilling the contents of the capsule. This also allows the encapsulation of materials that otherwise would absorb moisture from the air, swell, and pop open. The material can also be modified a little more so that it breaks down inside the mouth in just four seconds, making the healing substances held within it almost immediately available. Unlike other kinds of gel caps that need to be taken with a glass of warm water, hydroxypropyl methycellulose can be taken with cold water and still dissolve. It can also be used in foods in place of gluten. It can make ice cream creamier and keep bread from getting stale. It can replace some of the fat in salad dressings and still keep the mixture creamy.

Even though hydroxypropyl methycellulose is basically nothing more than plant fiber, it's also used in industrial adhesives, eye drops, contact lenses, detergents, paints, and as an additive to whole wheat flour to trap air bubbles that allow bread to rise.

Are there any deep dark secrets the makers of this very useful natural plastic are hiding from us?

  • There really is a maximum recommended amount of hydroxypropyl methylcellulose your digestive tract can process. It's 5 mg per kilogram of body weight, or about about 375 mg (1/75 of an ounce) for someone who weighs 75 kilos (165 pounds). That's the equivalent of two to eight vegetarian gel caps per day. However, laboratory experiments with the compound even when it provided 20 percent of their diet.
  • Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose isn't a completely non-calorie food. The human body can't digest it, but certain bacteria that live in the colon can. Gram for gram, hydroxypropyl methylcellulose will release more sugars than ice cream, but these sugars will be consumed by the bacteria that digest it, and the processing of these sugars by bacteria occurs in the large intestine, where there is more limited absorption of sugars into the human bloodstream even when they are released by bacteria. The primary effect of the capsules will be to feed bacteria that will make your stools softer and your bowel movements faster, although you would have a similar effect from eating a bowl of salad.
  • Hydroxypropyl methylcellulose can have an indirect effect on reproduction (women's fertility and male sperm count), but it's a beneficial one. The liver breaks down estrogen and testosterone that the body doesn't need and sends it to the bowel with bile salts. When you don't have enough active bacteria in your gut, certain kinds of bacteria can reassemble the hormones your body is trying to regulate and send them back into the bloodstream. Feeding healthy bacteria with tiny amounts of hydroxypropyl methylcellulose increases the bulk of the material in the bowel and keeps these excess hormones from reentering the body.

Hydroxypropyl methycellulose isn't something you would want to eat by the bowl, but even if you did, you probably wouldn't experience adverse effects other than bloating and burps. As long as you take a limited number of gel caps every day, and you don't have short bowel syndrome, it's either harmless or slightly beneficial to your overall health.

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