KSJ Tracker November 19, 2012

The Science of Twinkies

This week the Gen. Petraeus scandal is being eclipsed by Twinkies. Even Paul Krugman’s New York Times column this morning lead off with the most famous of the Hostess products. I was sure someone would pick up a science angle on the endangered 20th century lunchbox staple and poster-cake for junk food. A search revealed hundreds of stories and some amazing facts – the original Twinkie filling was banana flavored and became vanilla thanks to fruit rationing during World War II.

Most of the writing was just nostalgic waxing, but one scientifically-oriented piece showed up by Ed Grabianowski in HowStuffWork. In How Twinkies Work, you can learn that there’s only one preservative in a Twinkie, a mold-inhibitor. But the little cakes gain shelf life by offering substitutes, some of them petroleum-based, for the eggs and dairy ingredients. If not for a tiny bit of egg and possibly animal-based shortening, Twinkies could be vegan-friendly! And at 150-160 calories apiece, they are also dainty compared to most muffins and pastries popular in the 21st century. Here's a bit from the piece:

Monoglycerides and diglycerides, which replace eggs in the Twinkie recipe, are chemicals that act as emulsifiers. They stabilize the cake batter, enhance flavor and extend shelf life [source: Ettlinger]. A very small amount of egg is used to leaven the cake. Polysorbate 60 serves a similar function to the glycerides, keeping the cream filling creamy without the use of real fat. Hydrogenated shortening replaces butter, giving the cake some of its texture and flavor and prolonging shelf life.

Taste tests by flavor experts have revealed that artificial butter flavoring is used in the cake and artificial vanilla flavoring goes into the cream filling [source: Ettlinger]. Both flavorings are chemicals derived from petroleum.

Despite the Twinkie's reputation, only one ingredient is an actual preservative: sorbic acid. Other ingredients have preservative functions, but sorbic acid has one primary purpose -- it stops the formation of mold [source: Ettlinger].

Anyone with an ounce of curiosity at this point is wondering: Who is this Ettlinger? It turned out to be Steve Ettlinger, author of a 2007 book titled Twinkie Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods are Grown, Mined(yes, mined) and Manipulated Into What America Eats.

Academic style references might be fine if you are adding to the literature with original Twinkieology. As it reads, this piece feels cribbed from Mr. Ettlinger. Why not either interview him or at least tell us whether his book is as interesting as it sounds. Was it as revealing as Michael Pollan’s masterful deconstruction of a McDonald’s take-out meal in the first part of Omnivore’s Dilemma, or Eric Schlosser’s journey through the weird world of New Jersey’s flavor factories in Fast Food Nation?

A number of other pieces took a quote or two from Ettlinger, mostly in attempts to debunk myths that Twinkies are immortal, or will at least last for some thousands of years. But what I wanted to learn more about was the fact that some ingredients are really mined.  And what it says about the way America eats.

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