May 3, 2007 -- When looking at a Twinkie, most people see a small, spongy yellow cake, four inches long with a creamy inside. Others see a moist, delicious treat, and some people remember the Twinkie as a symbol of American culture that's been around since the 1930s.
But when Steve Ettlinger looks at a Twinkie, he sees something else.
"I see an example of modern food technology at work," he said. "I see the mastery of the problems of shelf-life, of distribution, of making something in large quantities while keeping it sanitary, while keeping it uniform. I'm really awestruck at their ability to do this. It's really impressive."
Ettlinger is author of the book "Twinkie, Deconstructed." During his research, he counted a whopping 39 ingredients in one Twinkie. "That's counting the vitamins and minerals in the fortified flour," he said. "It's more than I expected. When I first looked at it, I thought, yeah well, maybe a dozen. Thirty-nine!"
According to Ettlinger, Interstate Bakeries Corporation, the company that makes Twinkies, didn't exactly cooperate with his research. "I called them up naively, thinking maybe I could get a tour of the plant," he said, "or tell me where they got their stuff because, after all, it's printed clearly on the label. They called back the next day and said, you know, it's not really for us. If you want to reminisce about your childhood experience with Twinkies, we'll be glad to help you, but you're kind of on your own."
Interstate turns out a whopping 500 million Twinkies every year. At first glance, the ingredients contain items you might expect -- flour, sugar, corn syrup, etc. After that, things get a little…fuzzy.
Cooking With Chemistry
For instance, corn dextrin, a corn starch and a thickener, adds a certain cohesiveness to that sticky Twinkie crust. But in a separate life, corn dextrin also serves as a glue. In fact, it's the glue that you find on the back of envelopes.
Another ingredient is cellulose gum, which gives the Twinkie cream its smooth feel. "Cellulose gum, love it," Ettlinger said. "It's a great fat substitute. It's in a lot of low fat salad dressings, ice creams and it's used in rocket fuel to give a slightly gelatinous feel to the rocket fuel. I just love that."
Interstate shared their own view of the unique ingredient list in a statement to ABC News:
"The core ingredients in Twinkies have been the same for decades: flour, sugar and water. Deconstructing the Twinkie is like trying to deconstruct the universe. Some people look at the sky and think it's beautiful; others try to count the stars. We think the millions of people who have made Twinkies one of the most popular snacks in American history would agree that Twinkies just taste great."
The Twinkie ingredients can be found in some of these regulararly eaten foods -- in pudding, ketchup, peanut butter and energy drinks just to name a few.
These products can also be created without the chemistry set of ingredients. Fran Costigan, author of "More Great Good Dairy-free Desserts Naturally" created a recipe for a vegan Twinkie. (Click here for the recipe.)
"I have all real, what I call whole foods," said Costigan. "I have whole grain flours that are unbleached, I'm using natural sweeteners. Of course everything is organic. No preservatives whatsoever so you talk about shelf life, the shelf life will be much shorter."
'Shelf Life Is the Holy Grail'
When it comes to Twinkies, and all process foods, shelf life is crucial. "Shelf life is the holy grail of packaged food," said Ettlinger. "In order to get shelf life, you give up something: fresh eggs, fresh cream, fresh butter…So you need to not only extend the shelf life with the product you're making but you have to replace those eggs with emulsifiers, you have to replace the butter with flavors or colors. You have to replace them with things. That's why the ingredient list starts getting long."
The shelf life of a Twinkie has become something of a mythical mystery. A number of people believe they last forever. They are even rumored to last longer than the plastic wrappers that encase them. These myths, however, are false. But a Twinkie can last weeks, maybe even months.
Even with all the science and mystery surrounding the product, Ettlinger said it's perfectly fine to eat.
"It's a treat! My gosh, it's a dessert! You can eat desserts, you can eat treats occasionally. The Hostess people always trot out the people, some old guy who has had a Twinkie every day of his life, and he is perfectly fine! I mean my gosh, they are not gonna kill you! They are a treat."