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Twinkie, Deconstructed – Steve Ettlinger

Twinkie final cover

This is totally my kind of book. I’ve always been an ingredients reader and I’ve always wondered about those strange, chemically-sounding items that show up all the time. Over time, I’ve learned about a few of these mysterious ingredients, but Twinkie, Deconstructed conveniently addresses most of them in one book.

The book starts off with the author’s kids catching him reading the ingredients of an ice cream bar and they ask him what’s in it, followed by questions like “What’s polysorbate-60?” and “Where does polysorbate-60 come from, Daddy? “. So he decides to delve into the world of food processing, using the Twinkie’s ingredients list as the basis. He ends up looking into all the ingredients (listed here in the book’s table of contents), exploring the production and processing of everything from eggs, wheat and sugar to cellulose gum, phosphates and, yes, polysorbate-60.

twinkies

I guess I wasn’t too surprised at this glimpse into today’s world of modern food production and processing. Everything is done on a huge industrial scale and is part of a global food/industrial complex. Some of the more interesting points I took away from the book are:

  • A ton of things are made from corn
  • It’s all about chemistry
  • Even more things (including foodstuffs) are made from petroleum
  • For many ingredients or raw materials, there are only a handful of producers worldwide
  • Everything is very¬†proprietary (trade secrets) and¬†production¬†facilities are often off-limits under Homeland Security regulations

I found the book to be very interesting, even if it did start to get a little repetitive as he described yet another industrial facility and the various sequences of chemical reactions that turned A into B into C into something you end up eating. However, I appreciated his engaging and often humorous style as well as the historical context he gave for many of the ingredients in addition to their modern production methods. So, if you’ve ever wondered about polysorbate 60 (or riboflavin, diglycerides, calcium sulfate, FD&C Red No. 40, etc.), where they come from and how they’re made, then you’ll enjoy this book.

3 comments

  1. *chemical chemical reactions

    Was there any discussion of the effects this level of engineering might be having on our ability to process this stuff, or on how the nutritive value of the food created this way is affected?

    • [edited – thx]

      In terms of how the body processes stuff, he did talk a bit about how various things are digested just like anything else would be: i.e. the body will still chemically break things down to familiar constituent chemicals. On a related note, he also talks a bit about the food engineer’s goal of finding substitute ingredients than can mimic the function of traditional ingredients but without the fat/calories/etc. – remember Olestra? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olestra

      Also, in terms of nutritive value, he did describe the difference between the terms “enriched” and “fortified”. Enriched refers to nutrients added back into something that were lost during processing. Fortified refers to adding nutrients that we not already present. This random article gives a good summary of this distinction: http://blog.fitnessforsmartpeople.com/2011/understanding-food-labels-enriched-vs-fortified/