The Great Twinkie Investigation
In Twinkie, Deconstructed, author Steve Ettlinger confronts the truth about processed foods

A few years ago writer Steve Ettlinger was reading the wrapper of an ice cream bar he had bought for his two young children. Then his son, then in sixth grade, read one of the labels. “And what’s pol-y-sor-bate six-tee?” he asked his father.

Then it was his daughter’s turn. “Where does pol-y-sor-bate six-tee come from, Daddy?”

ettlingerA food writer himself (as well as once working as an assistant chef and being a regular habitué of fine restaurants), Ettlinger had focused less on packaged and processed food than on the whole and natural varieties. But as he became more aware of the odd ingredients listed on food wrappers, and further compelled by his daughter’s question, he decided to write a book. Twinkies became his subject because its ingredient list “was long enough to include a good variety of additives, including my two top targets, polysorbate 60 and high fructose corn syrup. I also liked the idea of Twinkies because, along the way, I could explore some of the outlandish myths surrounding them.”

The resulting book, Twinkie, Deconstructed (Hudson Street Press, 2007), subtitled “My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats,” took him on some kind of wondrous odyssey through the modern food industry as Ettlinger investigated how each Twinkie ingredient was “crushed, baked fermented, refined and/or reacted into a totally unrecognizable goo or powder with a strange name—all for the sake of creating a simple snack cake,” as the book jacket copy says. His travels took him through huge super-bakeries where the finished products emerge to exotic locales such as the gypsum hills in southern Oklahoma, source of one of the essential Twinkies ingredients. Throughout, Ettlinger reports each new revelation of the processing production line with an appealing sense of wonder at what he’s learning, a scientist’s dispassionate appraisal of his findings and a certain melancholic acceptance of the Twinkie’s persistence. “My book strikes a generally neutral tone because the task was to explain where this stuff comes from and how it’s made,” he says.

At the end, Ettlinger puts it simply and straightforwardly in a matter-of-fact caveat to the reader: Eat enough of ‘em, and you’ll be able to suss out the bouquet of fresh, Delaware polysorbate 60, and good Georgian cellulose gum; a hint of prime Oklahoma calcium sulfate, or that fine Midwestern soybean shortening, if not the finest fructose corn syrup Nebraska has to offer.

Twinkie, deconstructed.

At least now you know what you’re eating. —David McGee

In promoting the book, Ettlinger spoke with’s Vanja Petrovic. Some of the choice tidbits, if you will, are excerpted below. (The complete interview is at

How is the Twinkie generated by the American way of life?

Steve Ettlinger: I'm dealing with the ingredients and not with the Twinkie as a social phenomenon. But, you know, I had to address that just because it's such an amazing phenomenon. ...

Our way of life creates a need for something that can be shipped by truck. And so you get a tomato with a tough skin and a firm texture, so it can be shipped. And that's because our way of life says we want to have tomatoes year-round. Our way of life might say we want something that can be wrapped in plastic and not lose flavor. Our way of life might say we want little servings of foods packaged separately; we don't want to have to cut something. So, you're led to see something like I just saw a couple of hours ago—a bag of sliced apples. It strikes me as a complete waste of energy and time, but it's a convenience food.

In your book you detail to a great extent how each ingredient of a Twinkie is made. Why do you do so, and why is it important to do?

Ettlinger: I wanted to go back to the ground. I wanted to see where each ingredient came from the ground because that appeals to me. I like connecting the dots and making it complete from start to finish. ...

For example, the carbon dioxide that is pumped into these sodium carbonates to turn it into sodium bicarbonate comes from a nearby coal mine; that was interesting to me. And I actually talked to the people who dig the whole in the ground and truck the carbon dioxide over to the plant I visited in Green River, Wyo. For me, it's great satisfaction to get to the bottom of things and to see precisely where they come from.


Ettlinger: Well, I'm interested in answering the question, regardless of whether it's food or not, it's sort of a device. But, for food in particular as I got into it, I was struck over and over again about how odd it was that so many of the raw ingredients came from rock and certainly from petroleum from foreign countries, especially from China. So, I realized that I wanted to get to know my food a lot better, and I balanced that with my knowledge of, say, wine or beer or cheese.

I've been to places where certain cheeses come from, they don't come from somewhere else because that place produces the grass that cows graze on that with that particular breed of cow makes a certain kind of milk that makes a certain kind of cheese. And I like the fact that certain kinds of beer are brewed in certain kinds of places because of the yeast in the air that creates the flavor and the style of that particular beer.

So, I know that certain foods are linked to certain places. What's appealing to me about Twinkie, Deconstructed is that processed foods, by their very definition, are not linked to any place. They're anti-linked, they're meant to be producible everywhere and always the same. So, it was intriguing to see where the opposite of the, let's say, Belgian beer, comes from. The answer is that it doesn't come from any particular place. That's actually the nut of the whole book.

Are there any ingredients you found to be particularly disturbing or disgusting?

Ettlinger: Well, I didn't find any to be disgusting, but I think I've been fascinated with polysorbate 60 for a couple of reasons. One reason is my daughter's infamous question. Secondly, it is such an unfood-like sounding thing, not that mono and diglycerides sound appetizing, but there's something about polysorbate 60 that sounds so chemical that I just had to check it out. You know, "Why am I eating this thing?" Also, it largely replaces egg yolks, which are a wonderful food. I like making sauces, I used to live in France, so egg yolks are ... to think of an industrial version of that is sort of funny for me.

Also, one of my sources sent me a sample of polysorbate 60, a large quart container of this light brown goo, and I asked, "Can I taste it?" He said, "You wouldn't want to; you won't be able to taste your dinner for a week." That kind of scared me. No one else sent me a sample and said, "Don't taste it." Obviously, something like flour, you won't be happy if you stick your finger in it and lick it.

How long is the Twinkie's shelf life?

Ettlinger: The official shelf life is about 25 days. You can obviously eat them after that; they don't spoil. They do actually dry out.

They just dry out, they don't mold?

Ettlinger: They don't spoil. I made the homemade version of the Twinkie with eggs and cream and butter. It was delicious, I have to say. I got the cream filling down just perfectly. It had the consistency of the Twinkie cream filling, but it tasted a lot different; it was just whipped cream, basically. I put a portion of it aside, wrapped in plastic on a shelf, and it was green within a week, but a Twinkie will just dry out.

It won't mold?

Ettlinger: It's got two things in it, one of which was missing from my homemade version. It's got sorbic acid, which prevents the mold. It's got a lot of sugar and a lot of oil and those are two very stable things. ... They both have an infinite shelf life.

Do you think that when a chemical becomes a food is really a matter of perspective?

Ettlinger: Yes, and I don't know that it's a question that I've ever been quite able to answer. ... An apple is nothing but chemicals, a grape is nothing but chemicals, but it's a food because we say it is. It's a food because of its function: We eat it.

But isn't there a difference between an apple and polysorbate 60? Is that really a matter of perspective?

Ettlinger: No, obviously because the apple is natural. But, you see, the Twinkie is not made wholly from polysorbate 60; it's mostly flour and sugar. Which are things we can relate to. They're definitely foods, they're even nutrients. These additives are in very small quantities. They help it along. They make up for whatever shortcomings the batter might have if it were just water and flour, of course there are no eggs in it to speak of, and no cream. It needs something in there to help it flow through the tubes, the molds, the de-mold. There are a lot of things you have to add to it that you wouldn't add in your home version. But, they are just additives.

If we are what we eat, what do we become when we eat Twinkies?

Ettlinger: Well we're part of an international complex—the Twinkie Industrial Complex. We're eating things made with colors from Chinese petroleum and flavors made from Middle Eastern petroleum and vitamins made from all kinds of things in China and India, and so forth. And it is reassuring to me to eat something made from whole wheat, without all those ingredients. It's reassuring to me to eat locally grown food—I get a kick out of that.

Twinkie, Deconstructed is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
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