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,” wrote 19th-century French gastronomist Jean Anthelme Brillat-­Savarin. But without a Ph.D. in chemistry, who among us can figure out what we’re eating? To see what gives life (and shelf life) to today’s processed foods, writer Steve Ettlinger tackles a case study: the bewildering ingredient list of a Twinkie. In Twinkie, ­Deconstructed (Hudson Street Press, $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 making soap has to do with baking a cake, and where those ubiquitous “natural and artificial flavors” come from. Here, Ettlinger describes two tricksof the trade:

The Creamy Filling

Despite Hostess’s secret recipe, most food scientists will tell you that while the main ingredients in the filling are superfine sugar, shortening (oil), corn syrup, water, polysorbate 60, and salt, the key is that old pastry standby, cellulose gum, which can absorb 15 to 20 times its own weight in water. A pinch sprinkled on water 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 fibers plump the filling up, replacing fat (that is, real cream) with a moist,glossy, fatlike texture, without contributing a single calorie to the cake, because cellulose gum is not digested. It’s what helps hold a flavor on the back of your tongue, and, quite literally, helps Twinkies’ filling to shine.

The “Butter” Flavor

Since due to cost and rancidity issues there’s no room in a packaged cake like Twinkies for fresh butter, artificial  butter is the answer—the same “butter flavor” used on movie popcorn.

Artificial butter, like many flavor chemicals, smells positively awful in its concentrated state. Diacetyl—the “di” in the name refers to its molecular structure, and the “acetyl” part shows that it is related to acetic acid and acetylene welding gas—is so powerfully bad-smelling that some companies that deal with it do so in a dedicated, separate building. But diacetyl is a very common, smooth, slippery, butter-butterscotch flavor, and it occurs naturally quite often in spoiled fruit juice and overfermented beer. A mere touch of it gives chardonnay wine its smoothness; higher concentrations are what make butter smell like butter, but even higher concentrations are what make butter smell rancid.

Diacetyl could also be extracted from butter, but that is extremely difficult and expensive. Luckily, the same exact molecule is more inexpensively created from natural gas by a few obscure Chinese chemical companies and a well-known German multinational corporation.

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

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