The fluffy cream filling and moist golden cake make it hard to resist that signature Twinkie taste in this dearly beloved yet much maligned symbol of American processed food.
Unlike their chocolate rivals the Ho-Ho and the Ding Dong, Twinkies are such a cultural benchmark that over the years several urban legends have emerged about this snack, which contains 39 ingredients including some widely used chemicals.
Those chemicals have led some to believe these narrow yellow cakes have a never-ending shelf life and spend seven years decomposing in the human intestinal tract.
So when author Steve Ettlinger decided to write a book about processed food in America, the Twinkie was his ideal model. "Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats" chronicles Ettlinger's journey to discover the source -- both geographical and chemical -- of every ingredient listed on the back of Hostess' popular treat.
He said he wanted to write a book about food ingredients and was ultimately motivated when watching his two children eat ice cream bars at the beach. "As they happily ate I read, slack jawed, the ingredient list on the label of the ice cream bars," said Ettlinger in an interview with ABC News. "Finally, my little daughter pitched a zinger. 'Daddy, where does polysorbate 60 come from?' I had to do this book. I had to find out, and now I can tell her and she knows."
He decided to track down these ingredients and find where they are made, and what they contribute to the cake. Aside from polysorbate 60, there are 38 other ingredients listed in a Twinkie, a list that begins with flour, sugar, corn and soybeans.
But as the list goes on, he said the ingredients become a veritable who's who of the food chemical world.
Here's how it breaks down: Polysorbate 60 is used for that smooth consistency, high fructose corn syrup adds a sugary sweet taste, sodium stearoyl lactylate contributes the soft spongy texture, mono and diglycerides prevent drying, red No. 40 and yellow No. 5 achieve that golden color, sorbic acid helps retain freshness and cellulose gum enhancea the thickness and creaminess of the filling.
Ettlinger's quest to track down the elements in Twinkies took him across the country from a mine in Green River, Wyo., to a tree farm in Arkansas, where some of the ingredients are produced. He also looked around the world from a niacin refinery in Switzerland to a vitamin processing plant in China.
"The most surprising ingredient [in Twinkies] was baking powder, which is listed on the label as chemical leavening. Baking powder, which makes cakes light and airy, is made from three kinds of rocks," he said. Ettlinger found that rocks are not only found in Twinkies, but in any processed cake or bread.
"It's hard to wrap your mind around the fact that potentially there are rocks in your Twinkies or, for that matter, in any cake or bread, but that's the case.
"Besides the sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, that comes from the ore mine in Wyoming and the limestone from the Ozarks and the phosphorous from North Carolina or Idaho, the other rocks are calcium sulfate, which is mined in southern Oklahoma and is pure gypsum -- the same stuff you put on your walls," he explained.