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The Anatomy of a Twinkie

With the closing down of the Hostess brand in the U.S. this article may well be the autopsy of a Twinkie.

But of course, its many imitators live on, along with continued production of authentic Twinkies in Canada, and countless other products that contain the same, unidentifiable ingredients.

Years before financial troubles plagued the Hostess company, one man, Steve Ettlinger, was prompted by the inquiries of his children to find out what really goes into processed food.

The outcome was the book, “Twinkie, Deconstructed”, and its findings prove interesting, to say the least.

Of course, Twinkies are just a poster-child for processed and packaged food, as all the ingredients discussed in the book reveal just as much about commercial salad dressing and pancake mix, as they all share an extensive cocktail of chemicals.

Mining for food?

Many of today’s convenience foods contain ingredients that are closer to minerals than plant sources and even plant based ingredients are processed beyond recognition. Some examples are familiar, like enriched flour and bleached white flour. Of which the latter is lightened with exposure to chlorine, and yes, it is the same chlorine you would find in your cleaning products.

Other ingredients, like polysorbate 60, sound a bit more exotic, even if they come from familiar places. Because we greet food with our eyes first and taste buds second (excluding foods of a more fragrant nature), appearances are naturally a very important factor in selling food. To give processed foods their saturated presentation, imbued with vivid, bold colors, dyes are used, often more than one. There are, of course, natural dyes, including berries and herbs (hibiscus makes for a brilliant red). But then there are artificial dyes, whose origins are bit more sketchy. This can be said for benzene, a crucial element in food dye. It also happens to come off of crude oil. When a reaction occurs with benzene and nitric acid, aniline is created. Aniline, despite a favorable odor, is a highly poisonous liquid. Still, it is used as the base for most dyes. And it is not the only material with connections to petroleum, as sulfur and sorbic acid also come from crude oil.

But it is no stretch to acknowledge that without such ingredients, especially in the case of bleach flour, there would be no snack cakes – or any  other cakes of an airy, delicate texture. This is because the bleached flour used to make cake flour has less protein and gluten than its whole wheat counterpart. Meanwhile, despite their origins, some chemically based ingredients are still found safe for consumption, including sorbic acid, which has been deemed safer than table salt.

This doesn’t make the findings any less discerning. But because of the continued necessity of these ingredients in junk food, especially as high demands create need for more shortcuts (which led to the lofty use of artificial additives in the first place), this cannot be a proper eulogy of the Twinkie, rather a mere bidding of farewell from the U.S. borders. However, if claims by Hostess are correct, which state their financial distress was caused by a loss of sales due to an increase in people selecting healthier alternatives to get their snack on, then perhaps that alone is a good indicator of a national change in taste, one that may lead to healthier eating habits as kids’ lunches are packed with apples instead of sugary dainties.

Twinkie, Deconstructed, Steve Ettlinger, Hudson Street Press, Copyright 2007

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