The Explosive Truth About Twinkies, The Industrial-Strength Snack Cake

Eating Liberally Food For Thought
by Kerry Trueman

There are simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates, and then there’s the Twinkie, made from military industrial-complex carbohydrates. It’s got some of the same ingredients as tracer bullets and artillery shells, as I learned from reading Steve Ettlinger’s Twinkie, Deconstructed.

Ettlinger’s book, just out in paperback, documents the 39 ingredients it now takes to make a Twinkie, many of them minerals and chemicals, some derived from crude oil. This petroleum-based pastry is about a million food miles removed from your grandma’s yellow sponge cake, which had a shelf life of maybe two days, max.

Today’s Twinkie, on the other hand, stays frighteningly “fresh” for an unnaturally long time (officially, 25 days, but we all know it’s really more like 25 months.) Real butter turns rancid too fast, so the Twinkie gets its butter-like taste and texture from petrochemical-based ingredients like diacetyl, a close cousin to acetylene welding gas, and butyric acid, a flavor which Ettlinger gleefully informs us is “a natural component of Parmesan cheese, rancid butter, and, unbelievably, vomit and perspiration."

Twinkie, Deconstructed may amaze and appall you, but the fact is that while a Twinkie is not particularly good for you, it’s not all that bad for you, either. It’s just an amalgam of industrial ingredients and artificial flavors posing as an actual pastry. How did we ever fall for this oily oblong cake with the mystery “cream” filling?

Take a trip down Madison Avenue’s memory lane via YouTube with the classic seventies Twinkie ad at the top of this post and you'll find out. Watch the housewife-on-a-budget vow that no matter how tight money gets, she’ll never deprive her kids of “fresh, wholesome” Hostess Twinkies, because “you can’t skimp when it comes to your children.”

Fast forward to this series of Flickr photos taken last month entitled “It’s What’s For Breakfast,” in which a visibly disgusted mom in Portland, Oregon documented five days of the hot "food" served free to kids at her local public school in the morning before school. Stuff like “Bagel-ers,” which are some kind of bagel and cream cheese concoction, and a pancake-sausage-breakfast-sandwich that “tastes like sugar,” and a cereal bar made of whole grain oats glued together by “corn syrup, sugar, high fructose corn syrup. . . followed by a long list of other ingredients most of them with names only a chemist would understand.”

Or Steve Ettlinger. Twinkie, Deconstructed is not a Fast Food Nation/Omnivore’s Dilemma-style indictment of our food chain; it’s a science writer’s agenda-free foray into the peculiar world of processed foods, an odyssey Ettlinger embarked on in response to his daughter’s innocent question, “Daddy, what’s polysorbate 60?”

After reading Twinkie, Deconstructed I have a better understanding of what goes into the “cakelike cylinders (with creamlike fillings) called Twinkies that never grow stale,” as Michael Pollan describes them in In Defense of Food.

What I don’t understand is why our agricultural policies continue to promote these “edible foodlike substances” (Pollan's words, again.) It’s bad enough that your tax dollars are paying for all those amber waves of grain that get turned into nutritionally bankrupt foods and environmentally disastrous biofuels. But did you know that the USDA actually penalizes commodity crop growers who want to replant their fields with fruits or vegetables?

I didn’t, until I read Jack Hedin’s op-ed in last Saturday’s New York Times. Hedin, a small organic vegetable farmer in southern Minnesota, reveals that, at a time when farmers’ markets are popping up all over the country to meet the growing demand for fresh local produce, the USDA is working “deliberately and forcefully to prevent the local food movement from expanding.” Why in the world would they want to do that? Hedin explains:

Because national fruit and vegetable growers based in California, Florida and Texas fear competition from regional producers like myself. Through their control of Congressional delegations from those states, they have been able to virtually monopolize the country’s fresh produce markets.

The USDA actually fines farmers who have the audacity to switch from growing commodity grains to, say, melons or tomatoes, as Hedin learned the hard way. Talk about passive/aggressive. The USDA’s telling us we’ve got to eat more fruits and vegetables even as it’s thwarting the efforts of small family farmers to help us do just that.

At a time when Michael Pollan and those Skinny Bitches are convincing this nation of meatheads that a plant-based diet is better for us--not to mention our fellow creatures and the planet--our government is in cahoots with Agribiz and Big Food to keep us hooked on a chemical plant-based diet. And that’s a shame, because the epidemic of diseases caused by our Western diet poses a far greater threat to mankind than Middle Eastern terrorists.

Joe Wilson went off to Niger in search of “yellow cake” and came up famously empty-handed in the fiasco we’ve come to know as “PlameGate.” Little did he know we’ve got a yellow cake-based weapon of mass destruction right here at home.

Originally posted on TakePart.com.