June 12, 2007 -- 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.
Rocks in Your Twinkies?
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.
Despite the alarming number of chemicals and preservatives packed into this finger food, Ettlinger advised consumers "not to worry" and said hat Americans should "not be shocked" by the multitude of chemical ingredients.
"After all, all food is made of chemicals," he said. "Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, a lot of organic chemicals. These things are put together in different ways to get different types of food and shapes of food."
Go Ahead, Eat!
After he figured out what was inside a Twinkie you might think he would advise folks take a break from this dessert.
While Ettlinger said Twinkies aren't the devil they've been made out to be, he is not saying you should head out to your local 7/11 and gobble up as many as you would like.
"Twinkies are a dessert, they're a snack, they're a treat, and to have one once in awhile is fine," he said. "People ask me, 'Are Twinkies bad for you?' No. Are they good for you? Well, that's sort of a strange question. If you want something good for you go eat an apple, eat some zucchini, but don't expect a snack cake to be really, really good for you."
Ultimately, Ettlinger's study of the Twinkie is an inspection of all processed foods in America. He's even come up with his own name for the Twinkie-ization of American foodstuffs, the Twinkie nexus, to refer to the source of the materials used in these cakes.
"These are chemicals that come from the most common chemicals made in our country and around the world -- sulfuric acid, lime, ethylene, propylene. In the United States, 14 of the top 20 chemicals are somehow used to make ingredients in Twinkies.
"The Twinkie nexus extends beyond our borders, though. These same chemicals come from all over the world, as well as the processes that are used to make them into things like vitamins, artificial colors and artificial flavors," he explained.
Still, despite his attempt to rescue the Twinkie from its rotten reputation, Ettlinger agrees with those who question the need to pack these pint-size delicacies with unpronounceable and unrecognizable ingredients.
"You have to wonder, why do Twinkies need 39 ingredients? Can't I make a cake at home with just a few ingredients? The answer is you can. You don't need the preservatives because if you bake well everybody is going to eat your cake really quickly," Ettinger said.
"I made a sort of a gourmet version of a Twinkie at home … Boy was that good. No aftertaste either."