Carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) is everywhere. This versatile product has applications in various industries, from mining to paper manufacturing to food. Its primary characteristic is its capacity for binding water, and by extension, everything dissolved in the water. As its name implies, it is comprised of cellulose, except that carboxymethyl groups have been substituted in place of the hydrogen on the hydroxy groups. One molecule of CMC can therefore bind many molecules of water, creating a solution whose viscosity can be carefully controlled by manipulating the number of substitutions on the glucose backbone. The more substitutions, the more readily it dissolves, and a higher viscosity can be achieved.
Controlling the viscosity of a solution is not the only reason CMC is in such widespread use. In food, it is used as a dispersant for oils and fats, enabling these ingredients to be mixed in thoroughly to enhance the texture and mouthfeel of products such as ice cream, biscuits, and candies while minimizing the amount of costly ingredients (butter) required to achieve the desired effect. In medicine, it is the lubricating agent in eyedrops, and in some surgical procedures it is used to form a gel that is used as a barrier against leaks. In detergents, it prevents dirt that was washed off of the fabrics, dishes and other substrates from resettling on the cleaned surfaces. And in agriculture, it is used to help pesticides stick to the plants, thereby enabling the farmer to use less of it. These are just some of the ways CMC can help maximize the value of a product.
Despite its ubiquity, CMC has never received the bad press that other compounds have received. One infamous compound is Bisphenol A, which has been replaced in many consumer plastics after it was found that it could interact with human hormone receptors. However, CMC is physiologically inert – the beta-bonds that join the individual glucose molecules cannot be recognized by any of our body’s enzymes, so it doesn’t get absorbed or broken down. And because it is derived from cellulose, it is biodegradable and nontoxic to the environment.
The product is usually sold as a sodium salt. Most industrial powders are therefore only around 60-70% CMC, a purity which is acceptable for applications such as detergents, drilling, and paper manufacturing. However, in order to be used in food or in pharmaceutical applications, the purity must be much higher, from 90-99% pure. Sirius International’s Cellubrite CMC has a purity of 72% and our Cellubrite HP99 version is over 99% pure, which makes it suitable for food.
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Everybody wins – in a perfect world, this would always be the case. CMC may not be the right compound for every application, but odds are it can be useful to you, too. Want to find out if CMC can change your product and/or process for the better? Give us a call today.