As Steve Ettlinger dropped down a Wyoming mine shaft, plummeting 1,600 feet in an open-mesh cage, he wondered how many other food writers had ever donned hard hats and emergency breathing equipment in pursuit of a story. But it was too late to turn back. He'd promised his editor a book tracing the ingredients in a Hostess Twinkie to their origins—and one of them was down this shaft. At the bottom, he and his hosts climbed into an open Jeep and hurtled for 30 terrifying minutes through pitch-black tunnels. Their destination: the site where a mineral called trona—the raw ingredient of baking soda—was being clawed out of a rock face by giant machines. "To say that this does not suggest Twinkies or any other food product would be an understatement," observes Ettlinger. "There you are at an open rock face, wondering why they do all this for the sake of a little snack cake."
If you've ever puzzled over why packaged foods contain "polysorbate 60" or "mono and diglycerides," Ettlinger's new book, "Twinkie, Deconstructed," is a treat you'll want to try. Chapter by chapter, Ettlinger—the author of previous food books like "Beer for Dummies"—decodes all 39 ingredients in the little crème-filled cakes. He explains their uses and the processes by which raw materials are "crushed, baked, fermented, refined and/or reacted into a totally unrecognizable goo or powder with a strange name," which then appears on a label full of other incomprehensible and barely pronounceable ingredients. Unraveling it all was a major undertaking—and Ettlinger received no help from Hostess and its parent company, Interstate Brands Corp., despite appealing directly to the Vice President of Cake.
At the heart of the book is the fundamental question: why is it you can bake a cake at home with as few as six ingredients, but Twinkies require 39? And why do many of them seem to bear so little resemblance to actual food? The answer: To stay fresh on a grocery-store shelf, Twinkies can't contain anything that might spoil, like milk, cream or butter. Once you remove such real ingredients, something has to take their place—and cellulose gum, lecithin and sodium stearoyl lactylate are a good start. Add the fact that industrial quantities of batter have to pump easily through automated tubes into cake molds, and you begin to get the idea.
Even so, it can be unsettling to learn just how closely the basic ingredients in processed foods resemble industrial materials. Corn dextrin, a common thickener, is also the glue on postage stamps and envelopes. Ferrous sulfate, the iron supplement in enriched flour and vitamin pills, is used as a disinfectant and weedkiller. Is this cause for concern? Ettlinger says no, though you wouldn't want a diet that consists solely of Twinkies. Ultimately, all food, natural and otherwise, is composed of chemical compounds—and normal ingredients like salt have industrial applications, too. Still, it gives you pause when he describes calcium sulfate, a dough conditioner, as "food-grade plaster of Paris."
In the end, you may learn more than you really wanted to about the Twinkie-Industrial Complex, as Ettlinger calls it. But you will never read a label the same way again.