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Twinkie, Deconstructed: Processing the American Diet

A conversation with author Steve Ettlinger reveals the mines, mile-long factories and enormous industrial effort that goes into making a Twinkie -- an archetype of the processed foods found in so many Americans' diets.
 
 
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Have you ever gone to the supermarket, flipped over the package of a processed food and stared blankly at the ingredients? Have you ever wondered what whey protein, polysorbate 60 or high fructose corn syrup is?

Well, so did Steve Ettlinger, author of a new book called Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients in Processed Foods are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated Into What America Eats. But he did nothing about it until his daughter asked him what polysorbate 60 was.

In his book, Ettlinger leads us through every step needed to manufacture a Twinkie. Ettlinger describes mines and mile-long factories and reveals the enormous industrial effort that goes into making a Twinkie, although the book can be generalized to include all processed foods.

Ettlinger has been an author, editor, and book producer since 1985. He has appeared on a number of television and radio shows, including The Today Show and Good Morning America . He has helped create over 40 books, and is currently working on a documentary about artificial ingredients.

Ettlinger spoke with AlterNet over the phone.

Vanja Petrovic: Why deconstruct the Twinkie? Why not another typical processed product like, for example, a Diet Coke?

Steve Ettlinger: When I first wanted to do this book, I knew I wanted to do something on processed food and processed food ingredients and food additives. ... When I realized that Twinkies had the right ingredient list length, I also realized I had a wonderful subject because everybody relates to Twinkies. And everybody associates Twinkies with the subject of my book: processed foods. It's sort of the archetype of processed food.

Petrovic: Does deconstructing the Twinkie deconstruct the American diet?

Ettlinger: I don't know about the American diet, but it deconstructs the typical processed food. The ingredients in the Twinkie are found in most common processed foods, not the same way obviously, because Twinkies are baked and sweet, but you find many of the same ingredients in everything -- literally -- from soup to nuts.

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

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.

Petrovic: So, do you think this is a negative -- sliced apples that have stuff put in them so they don't turn brown?

Ettlinger I do. I think it's a shame. But I also understand the desire for it. I'm part of a number of people who want to eat really great tasting apples of different varieties, and I have to pay for that privilege to eat a really fine apple from the farmers' market that's not a Golden Delicious. ...

Listen, I'm eating some food tonight that was flown in on an airplane from Europe -- some Dutch cheese -- and it's wrapped in plastic. It wouldn't be here if it weren't for a whole lot of effort, industrial effort, even though it's cheese and therefore not highly processed. ... So, I'm not looking down on anybody who creates a need for a complex process to bring themselves some gustatory pleasure, because I do that too. I'm drinking beer that was probably brewed in England, so that's a pretty big deal.

Petrovic: You mentioned eating cheese made in Europe and beer brewed in London. The carbon footprint on both of those products is huge. Does it matter whether you eat a Twinkie or drink European beer since the carbon footprint on both is large?

Ettlinger: It matters. I, for one, like to choose my carbon footprints carefully. First of all, I don't want it to be wasteful. Second of all, I can drink a lot of beer and be healthy; it has a lot of nutrients in it, a lot of B-12 and so forth. If you eat a lot of Twinkies, that's not the case.

Petrovic: 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.

Petrovic: Why?

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 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.

Petrovic: 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.

Petrovic: This is a question that you yourself ask in your book -- why do we make such an enormous industrial effort to create artificial replacements for relatively unprocessed things like sugar, butter or vanilla?

Ettlinger: I think mankind is driven to always improve on nature or try to control it. In this case the motivation comes from mankind's desire to preserve food, which goes back thousands of years to smoking and salting. And what the food chemists who have created a cake with a long shelf life have done is sort of in the tradition of salting your fish or smoking your pork so it will last.

Petrovic: 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.

Petrovic: 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.

Petrovic: 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.

Petrovic: 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.

Petrovic: 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.

Petrovic: 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.

Petrovic: Were you looking to make a social statement with this book?

Ettlinger: Oh, no. Not at all. I was just curious.

Petrovic: You were just curious?

Ettlinger: I'm a curious guy. ... I'm not a scientist, but it's definitely a book in the popular science tradition. It's knowledge, which you can use any way you want.

I want to make it very clear that my book strikes a generally neutral tone because the task was to explain where this stuff comes from and how it's made. I can't imagine that people who are sophisticated about food would fail to be, maybe not appalled, but certainly it would reinforce their decision to eat whole and local foods. And I certainly speak out in favor of that all the time, but I felt I couldn't speak to that throughout the book without boring the reader with the same message over and over. So, in my mind, I let the reader decide based on the facts that I give them if they want to eat food processed with toxic chemicals made in factories that are a mile long. I don't, but ... this book isn't about me, it's about, "What is this stuff? Where does it come from?" It's the pure unadulterated pleasure of knowing where your food comes from so you can make an informed choice.

Vanja Petrovic is an editorial intern with AlterNet.

 
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