The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 9 April 2008

Twinkie, Deconstructed

My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods
are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into what America Eats

by Steve Ettlinger

Consider the humble Hostess Twinkie. It is legendary for its mythical indestructibility. It isn't true that the only thing left after a nuclear holocaust will be cockroaches and twinkies (survivalists are bound to be there, too). But it may as well be the case. After all, this urban legend is really about what we do know to be true about these pasty little yellow cakes. They are indeed a conglomeration of some highly processed foodstuffs, petrochemicals, and rocks (They're really not made by some bizarre chemical reaction.). Anyway, the question behind the urban legends is Do we really want our food made this way? The literary marketplace is currently saturated with books that decry the way the world processes and eats its food, most notably those of Michael Pollan. These books are political as well as instructive and critical. Ettlinger's little book on the twinkie, however, is merely instructive. He dissects the many ingredients of the snack cake with a certain wonder, and some faith that this is food because we say it is. At the prompting of his young daughter, he sets out to discern the origins of all these ingredients. What results is a complex network of food and chemical factories, mines, oil fields and even wheat fields and poultry farms (go figure!). Ettlinger works his way (whey?) through the ingredient list, following the complex paths that these humble ingredients take to the humble finished product you buy at the local 7-11. The problem is that almost all of these ingredients undergo the same kind of processing, so that we are left with a long list of spotless factories, giant vats, mixing tanks, conveyor belts and railroad cars. The minerals and foods are treated with a dizzying array of petrochemicals, acids, and temperatures. In the end, the reader will have a hard time separating or even remembering the provenance of any one ingredient. After some interesting historical tidbits, Ettlinger offers some explanation of why each ingredient is in the twinkie, but these excuses, too, sound remarkably similar. Most of them sound like they do the same thing, i.e. retain water, improve crumb, increase shelf life. There is no question that these ingredients and techniques have evolved slowly over time to accomodate mass production of snack cakes (and countless thousands of other processed products). But some of them have turned out to be quite nasty to the human body (like hydrognated trans-fats), Most, though chemically altered, are, according to Ettlinger, pretty harmless. In the end, Ettlinger praises his humble subject, the twinkie, for being an edible (if not tasty) product of industrial ingenuity. They're made this way, he says, because we want them this way. But, the real story is between the lines (and here we return to Michael Pollan territory). The real questions, the ones that Ettlinger consciously chooses not to ask, are, Do we really want our food, any of it, produced in this way? Is it really food at all? Is this the kind of life we want for ourselves and our children?

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