Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2007 Issue

Deconstructing Twinkies: What's in those Things? - <i>A Book Review</i>

Author Steve Ettlinger deconstructs the Twinkie.


By Michael Stillman

A recently released book -- Twinkie Deconstructed, by Steve Ettlinger -- will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about Twinkies, those iconic symbols of modern, prepackaged "food." Well, not quite everything. The one element missing is the answer to the most important question of all -- can I safely eat these things? This most elemental question is one Ettlinger leaves for you to decide.

Perhaps this is not what you would expect. With a title like that, you figure the author's intent is to convince you never to let one of them near your lips again. Its ingredients sound more like those of the chemistry set you had as a child than food. It was perhaps this assumption that led baker Hostess™ not to cooperate with this book. That was a mistake. Ettlinger is fair and factual, more interested in informing than proselytizing. His goal is simply to tell you what is in them (all 39 ingredients), where they come from, and how they are made. From the start, he notes that this is not really about Twinkies anyway. It is about all of our processed foods, which is much if not the majority of what most of us eat. Twinkies, because they are so iconic, was selected for his study, but if you come away believing that Twinkies should not be eaten, you better be prepared to drop just about everything else you don't buy fresh at the local farmers' market as well.

Ettlinger's book is really a tour. He looks at the list of ingredients, explains how they are made, and then goes on the road to visit the plants where they are produced. Some welcome him. Others close their doors. Still, he is able to provide us with a non-technical explanation of what goes on behind the scenes. If there is a weakness to this book, it's that there are so many ingredients, produced in similar ways in huge plants, that it tends to feel a bit repetitive after awhile.

Why so many ingredients? Each one has its own purpose, though many perform similar functions in different ways. Most eventually come back to the one important factor that was not an issue for your grandmother when she baked a cake -- shelf life. Grandma's cake was eaten within a day or two after it was baked, likely in the very same kitchen. Twinkies must survive for 25 days and hundreds if not thousands of miles on the road. And, after all that, they must taste, look and feel exactly as they did when they first came out of the oven. That is a major challenge.

The first issues that come to mind for 25 days of shelf life are spoilage and staleness. But, it's even more difficult than just this. For example, Twinkies have a "creme" (not to be confused with cream) filling, surrounded by a firm cake. Naturally, you would expect moisture from the "creme" to escape to surrounding cake, making it unappealingly soggy. This is unacceptable, even after 25 days. So modified cornstarch, one of those "what's this?" ingredients is added. Now some people may become uneasy when they discover that sulfuric or hydrochloric acid, which could dissolve metal, is used to "modify" this natural ingredient. Grandma didn't use it, but her cake never lasted long enough for weeping to become a problem.

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