How Did Twinkies Double Their Lives?

The gooey golden sponge cakes return to the market today. Despite the anti-processed-food movement, they seem here to stay.
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Deep-fried Twinkies (cubedude27/Flickr)

When Twinkies return to shelves today after an eight-month hiatus, many Americans will be relieved that one of the most famous, iconic brand names is back among us. Others will, of course, snort with derision. In either case, we care. When he was President, Bill Clinton even put some in a time capsule. And it will be only about five minutes before people start complaining that the taste has changed because of the new owners, or because they're put off by the notion that the infamous 25-day shelf life is now extended to a fairly astounding 45 days.

Does that mean the Twinkie will taste different? Hostess wouldn't share the new recipe with me prior to the release, but having studied Twinkies' ingredient labels from Hostess bakeries around the country for my book, Twinkie, Deconstructed, I know that the recipe has never been etched in stone. Industrial food product recipes evolve, sometimes due to major price fluctuations for certain commodity ingredients, like sugar; other times they may be tweaked to work with the equipment unique to a particular bakery (Twinkies have always been baked at various plants around the country) or different mineral makeup of the local water. In some markets, vegetable shortening was substituted for lard in order to get a kosher label. And certainly various ingredients have been added as they were invented, such as my personal favorite, polysorbate 60. In fact, almost nothing artificial was in the original recipe back in 1930; fresh dairy ingredients were shed long ago in the quest for a longer shelf life.

In this case, though, my money is on a simple packaging redesign that will account for the newly increased longevity. If you leave Twinkies out, they tend to get dry and hard. They most likely improved packaging for better moisture control in a way that inhibits spoilage too. That way, the famous taste remains untouched.

Baking expert Matt Jacobson of Grocery Haulers, Inc., confirmed my suspicions, telling me, "MAP [modified atmosphere packing] flushes out the oxygen from pack while injecting a combo of gases to control conditions inside the pack, thus controlling the PH of product, the moisture release, and inhibiting mold growth."

With all the hoopla surrounding their return to store shelves will come a huge dose of nostalgia. We'll get it many ways: Older folks will recall the carefree days of their 1950s youth, when their stay-at-home mothers always put them in our lunch boxes or served them to us as what the Hostess ads called a healthy, nourishing snack ("Protein to grow on!" said one, encouraging supposedly enlightened moms to push the little cakes on their innocent, unsuspecting kids).

Ah, blissful ignorance! Nostalgia is full of whitewash. They were and will remain really only sugar bombs. These days, no one, especially a savvy mother, would call an oily cake made of mostly sugar and flour (as are most cakes) a healthy snack. Not even Hostess claims it to be anything more than a good-tasting, fun thing. And today, plenty of school kids would speak up to correct that 1950s mom (I know mine would -- politely, of course).

We will also, no doubt, hear complaints about how they don't taste the same or that the filling is too sticky, along with endless discussions as to why: That they were frozen or that (shudder!) the recipe was changed. None of this really matters, although it might be fun to argue the points. I mean, who knows what the original Twinkies tasted like, or the ones from the '50s, let alone from last year?

Also, watch out for tweaks that might appeal to baby boomers and what might be called intelligent food consumers, i.e. gluten free or even organic Twinkies. Food writer/organic guru Joan Gussow asked the pertinent question years ago in her famous essay about the possibility of a certified Organic Twinkie. She said that should such a thing come to pass, it meant the end of the certified organic label being worth anything. As for taste, talented chefs have created organic, low-fat, vegan versions of Twinkies on my behalf, with startlingly pleasant results.

Are Twinkies evil things?

People often ask why I did not indict the Twinkie as the incarnation of food evil. One simple reason is that I wanted to write about the artificial ingredients -- most of which are found in all common processed foods -- from a scientific approach. I found the whole idea of making food from the most important industrial chemicals pretty hilarious, amazing, and startling. While it did make me want to eat more broccoli, I found no poison in the works.

The problems I did confront include the way our industrial food complex is based on petroleum and international industry. Twinkies are a mere example among thousands of food products, including corn and soybeans, that rely on extensive government support to keep those all-important petroleum prices low. Our health in general has not indeed worsened since we started eating more processed food. 

That despite this we maintain a collective fascination with and affection for Twinkies continues to astound me. How enduring can the influence of a sponsor of the Howdy Doody Show really be? 

It may be because early childhood impressions, experts tell us, are incredibly durable. That brand loyalty has a shelf life longer than the cakes themselves.

But some irrational attachment to and fascination with Twinkies persists even in this day and age of sensible consumption (not to mention an organic garden at the White House, along with all that that represents). I've read and considered many theories on why Twinkies became such an iconic brand, among them the plausible notion that it's because they are cute and blonde. I personally believe, though, it's all in the name. It conjures such a pristine image. In a 1950s TV ad, a generic spokesman spiels: "Everybody loves the dessert with a twinkle in its eye!"

You could never get that kind of beloved-ness in our culture for something called, say, "DingDongs," "RingDings," or "Dreamies Creme Kakes."

For all the reasons better or worse that they endure, there's no doubt that today a star is reborn -- one that twinkles. In more than one way, this comeback proves that Twinkies do seem like they will last forever.

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