Reviews: What the Heck's in a Twinkie?

Steve Ettlinger shows what passes for 'cream' and 'butter.'

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” wrote19th-century French gastronomist Jean Anthelme Brillat-­Savarin. Butwithout a Ph.D. in chemistry, who among us can figure out what we’reeating? To see what gives life (and shelf life) to today’s processedfoods, writer Steve Ettlinger tackles a case study: the bewilderingingredient list of a Twinkie. In Twinkie, ­Deconstructed (Hudson StreetPress, $23.95), we learn the secrets of producing iron-enriched flour(hint: you’ll need the kind of oil that comes from a well), what makingsoap has to do with baking a cake, and where those ubiquitous “naturaland artificial flavors” come from. Here, Ettlinger describes two tricksof the trade:

The Creamy Filling

Despite Hostess’s secret recipe, most foodscientists will tell you that while the main ingredients in the fillingare superfine sugar, shortening (oil), corn syrup, water, polysorbate60, and salt, the key is that old pastry standby, cellulose gum, whichcan absorb 15 to 20 times its own weight in water. A pinch sprinkled onwater floats like a jellyfish. A moistened spoonful becomes a clear,gelatinous, slimy glob in a matter of minutes.

Cellulose gum hangs on to the water in Twinkies’ filling, and thus,like so many other ingredients, keeps it slipperier longer. Its fibersplump the filling up, replacing fat (that is, real cream) with a moist,glossy, fatlike texture, without contributing a single calorie to thecake, because cellulose gum is not digested. It’s what helps hold aflavor on the back of your tongue, and, quite literally, helpsTwinkies’ filling to shine.

The “Butter” Flavor

Since due to cost and rancidity issues there’sno room in a packaged cake like Twinkies for fresh butter, artificialbutter is the answer—the same “butter flavor” used on movie popcorn.

Artificial butter, like many flavor chemicals, smells positivelyawful in its concentrated state. Diacetyl—the “di” in the name refersto its molecular structure, and the “acetyl” part shows that it isrelated to acetic acid and acetylene welding gas—is so powerfullybad-smelling that some companies that deal with it do so in adedicated, separate building. But diacetyl is a very common, smooth,slippery, butter-butterscotch flavor, and it occurs naturally quiteoften in spoiled fruit juice and overfermented beer. A mere touch of itgives chardonnay wine its smoothness; higher concentrations are whatmake butter smell like butter, but even higher concentrations are whatmake butter smell rancid.

Diacetyl could also be extracted from butter, but that is extremelydifficult and expensive. Luckily, the same exact molecule is moreinexpensively created from natural gas by a few obscure Chinesechemical companies and a well-known German multinational corporation.

A volatile liquid, it is such a bright, intense fluorescent yellowthat you can easily see where real butter gets its color. Packedcarefully into 25-kilogram (55-pound) drums and sealed with a layer ofnitrogen to protect it from moisture and fire (it is so highlyflammable that a vapor mixture can actually explode), it must be storedunder refrigeration. The containers are labeled “Harmful if swallowed,”both ironic and ominous for a food ingredient.

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