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

- by Michael Stillman

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Or how about cellulose gum? This is a vegetarian item, though it comes from either trees or cotton plants, which few of us eat, and must be treated with lye and other unappetizing chemicals first. Still, it can hold 15-20 times its weight in water, just what is needed to keep that delicious, though strange "creme" perfectly moist.

Then come the pure chemical elements, things that are mined rather than grown. This certainly sounds unappetizing, but most of these are ones that appear in the little feared baking soda, and of course, the mined mineral we all sprinkle on our food -- salt. Perhaps ones that come from petroleum are even more frightening. Sorbic acid is the major preservative, extremely effective at killing mold. Will this petroleum-based ingredient kill you too? Not likely, since the same stuff used to be processed from berries. It's just cheaper to extract it from petroleum, which is, after all, organic material, albeit older than most we consume. Perhaps it's the sorbic acid that preserves petroleum's "freshness" for millions of years.

Along with his study of the source of the ingredients, Ettlinger brings us on a tour through many of the huge manufacturing plants. These products aren't made just for Twinkies, but for numerous other foods as well as non-food products. With a population of 300 million to feed in America alone, the quantities needed are astounding. My favorite is the egg-breaking facility in New Jersey that cracks open 7 million shells a day. Seven million! I cannot conceive of dealing with 7 million eggs every day. A machine splits the eggs open, while cupped hands on each side tilt and shake the eggs' two halves, like a cook's two hands with a cracked egg.

While the chemicals sound the most frightening, Ettlinger does bring up the really dangerous issue -- partially hydrogenated oils. Here is a very simplified, unscientific explanation. Due to the cost and health factors associated with animal fats, vegetable oil was seen as a healthy substitute. However, vegetable oil is a liquid, and a solid form is needed. It was discovered that pumping hydrogen though the oil would result in a solidified form. The hydrogen somehow clings to the molecules and adjusts their form accordingly. Partial hydrogenation, where enough hydrogen is added to cling only to some molecules, produced the ideal balance between liquid and solid form (soft solid). However, partial hydrogenation, for reasons perhaps no one fully understands, creates trans fats, oddly shaped molecules that increase our production of bad cholesterol and decrease the production of good. These things are deadly. These trans fats are no longer found in Twinkies, but their one-time presence, at a time when scientists believed they were a healthy substitute, can make you wonder if there is still more unknown danger lurking in these myriad ingredients that bear little resemblance to what we traditionally think of as food.