In an age of health-conscious consumers, low-carb diets and bottled water, one snack has stood the test of time. The Twinkie is an icon of junk food snacks and guilty pleasures, nutritionally worthless yet irresistibly yummy.
Twinkies turn up in places far removed from brown-bag lunches -- in murder trials, wedding cakes and plenty of urban legends about their shelf life. You've probably heard the one about how Twinkies could survive a nuclear attack, or the one about that secret ingredient, embalming fluid. So, what are Twinkies, exactly? Can they really sit in a store for 30 years? In this article, we'll learn about their history, how they're made and the real story behind the shelf-life rumors.
A Twinkie seems like a very simple snack. It's a spongy yellow cake 4 inches long and an inch and a half wide. Inside is a creamy white filling that tastes more or less like vanilla cake frosting.
The cake part of a Twinkie is moist and light, and the overall flavor is not too strong. The cake has a distinct buttery flavor, although it is fairly obvious that you are tasting a flavoring of some kind, not real butter. There are three small "globs" of filling spaced evenly down the length of the cake. The filling has a very smooth, slippery texture and a sugary flavor.
It takes more than cake and filling to make a Twinkie. The original recipe, concocted in 1930, included basic ingredients, like eggs, milk and butter. The need for a longer shelf life led to the introduction of additional ingredients.
Bleached wheat flour and real sugar made from sugar cane and sugar beets comprise a large portion of a Twinkie. The sugar isn't there just for the sweet taste -- sugar crystals hold air and make the cake lighter, and they also combine with proteins to make the cake tender. The sugar even holds moisture and helps give a Twinkie its color [source: Ettlinger].
However, a surprising number of Twinkie ingredients come from something seemingly un-Twinkie-like: eight out of 39 ingredients are derived from corn [source: Ettlinger]. Corn starch, glucose, fructose and high fructose corn syrup are important in the Twinkie-making process.
Few of the remaining ingredients would be recognizable to the average person -- many of them are created by the wonders of modern chemistry. We'll learn all about them on the next page.
Monoglycerides and diglycerides, which replace eggs in the Twinkie recipe, are compounds that act as emulsifiers. They stabilize the cake batter, enhance flavor and extend shelf life [source: Ettlinger]. A very small amount of egg is used to leaven the cake. Polysorbate 60 serves a similar function to the glycerides, keeping the cream filling creamy without the use of real fat. Hydrogenated shortening replaces butter, giving the cake some of its texture and flavor and prolonging shelf life.
Taste tests by flavor experts have revealed that artificial butter flavoring is used in the cake and artificial vanilla flavoring goes into the cream filling [source: Ettlinger]. Both flavorings are chemicals derived from petroleum.
Despite the Twinkie's reputation, only one ingredient is an actual preservative: sorbic acid. Other ingredients have preservative functions, but sorbic acid has one primary purpose -- it stops the formation of mold [source: Ettlinger].
Finally, cellulose gum replaces fat in the filling. This ingredient can absorb 15 to 20 times its own weight in water. It keeps the filling smooth and creamy.
Once all these ingredients have been mixed, they are poured into metal pans with Twinkie-shaped molds. The batter is baked at 350 degrees F for nine to 12 minutes [source: Ettlinger]. The bottom of the mold is rounded, and the batter at the top of the mold is browned by the baking process. After cooling, the cakes are released from the trays and turned upside down. The familiar round top of a Twinkie is actually the bottom when it's made.
Automated machines carry the Twinkies to a series of cream-filling injectors. Three injectors simultaneously pierce the bottom of the cake, filling it with three "globs" of filling. If you look at the bottom of a Twinkie, you can usually see where the filling was injected.
From there, machines wrap the Twinkies in airtight plastic packaging. They might be wrapped individually or in pairs, depending on how they will ultimately be sold. Then the wrapped Twinkies are packed into boxes, which are packed into larger boxes, which are loaded onto trucks for delivery to stores across the United States.
A single Twinkie has 150 calories (160, according to some sources), which by itself isn't that bad as far as snacks go. However, it contains 4.5 grams of fat, including 2.5 grams of saturated fat, 19 grams of sugars and no dietary fiber [source: Calorie King]. So while a Twinkie now and then isn't going to kill anyone, your doctor probably wouldn't recommend an all-Twinkie diet.
In the 1920s and '30s, Continental Bakeries sold baked snacks under the Hostess brand name. Many of the snacks were seasonal, with fruit filling. Hostess Little Shortbread Fingers were made with strawberries, so for several months of the year the equipment used to make them sat idle because strawberries weren't available.
The company vice president, James Dewar, wanted to make a product that could use that equipment and improve efficiency. His idea was a simple sponge cake with a flavored cream filling. On the way to a marketing meeting, he saw a billboard advertising Twinkle-Toe Shoes. And so, the Twinkie was born in 1930 [source: Hostess].
The first Twinkies were quite different from the ones we know. For one thing, they were made with banana cream filling, not vanilla. But in World War II, there was a banana shortage, and vanilla became the standard flavor. The eggs, milk and butter in early Twinkies gave them a shelf life of only two days. Dewar had his salesman replenish store shelves every other day, but the practice was expensive. So, the need for a longer shelf life led to many changes in the Twinkie recipe [source: Ettlinger].
Today's Twinkie has a much longer shelf life than the ones made in 1930, but not as long as some people think. A variety of myths and urban legends have sprung up around the Twinkie's longevity, claiming that it stays fresh for decades, would survive a nuclear war and that the company is still selling off the original batch made in 1930, still fresh almost 80 years later. In fact, a Twinkie's shelf life is officially 25 days [source: Snopes]. It's also a misconception that Twinkies are chemically preserved. Most of the chemical ingredients are replacements for the ingredients that allow a Twinkie to spoil, but they aren't strictly preservatives. Replacing eggs, butter and fats is what keeps Twinkies from going rancid. In fact, the airtight plastic packaging does far more to keep the cakes fresh than any of the actual ingredients do.
There are claims of Twinkies that have "lasted" for decades, such as one kept in a high school science classroom for 30 years [source: USA Today]. While it is true that the Twinkie continues to exist (like pretty much anything in a sealed plastic wrapper would), it is described as brittle. Reports that it is probably still edible are dubious, since no one seems willing to put that theory to the test.
Twinkies in Pop Culture
The Twinkie has become much more than a snack cake. It has become a pop-culture icon. It is often regarded as the epitome of junk food and used to symbolize an unhealthy diet. Twinkies have even turned up in the courtroom. In 1985, a man who was running for Minneapolis city council was indicted for bribery after serving Twinkies to constituents. Although the charges were dropped, the case led to the term "Twinkiegate" and a campaign finance law known as "The Twinkie Law" [source: Washington Post].
Not satisfied with political work, Twinkies have also been implicated in a famous murder case. In 1979, Dan White, an accused murderer in San Francisco, claimed the act was brought on by severe depression -- evidence of this depression was provided by White's uncharacteristic consumption of junk food, including Twinkies. The "Twinkie Defense" became famous nationwide [source: Washington Post].
In 2005, the American Society of Media Photographers devoted its annual Object Show to Twinkies. The artistic photos included Twinkies growing on trees, models using Twinkies as beauty products and Jesus Christ with a Twinkie for a head [source: Pittsburgh Live].
Twinkies are idolized and dissected on the Internet. The T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S. Project is a lighthearted Web site that subjects Twinkies to a battery of scientific tests to determine their properties. The tests have examined the electrical resistance of Twinkies, their solubility in water and whether or not they are sentient [source: T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S. Project].
The Versatile Twinkie
If a plain Twinkie isn't decadent enough for you, there are other ways to enjoy one. How about deep fried? The owners of a restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., invented this concoction (reportedly very tasty, though the author of this article has not tried one), and it became popular across the United States after appearing at country fairs [source: CNN].
You could display your devotion to Twinkies (and your spouse) with a Twinkie wedding cake, as several couples have done. Hostess even offers instructions on preparing one [source: Hostess]. Twinkie pie, Twinkie tiramisu and even Twinkie sushi are all possible with this versatile snack [source: Recipezaar].
For more information about all things Twinkie, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Calorie King. "Calories, Fat & Carbohydrates in Desserts: Twinkies." http://www.calorieking.com/foods/food/carbs-calories-in-hostess-desserts-twinkies-hostess_Y2lkPTM3MTI0JmJpZD00NjUmZmlkPTc4MzM2JnBhcj0.html
- CNN.com. "New junk food fad: Deep-fried Twinkies." Sept. 18, 2002. http://archives.cnn.com/2002/US/West/09/18/offbeat.twinkie.reut/
- Ettlinger, Steve. "Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated Into What America Eats." Hudson Street Press; 1 edition, 2007.
- Hostess. "About Us." http://www.hostesscakes.com/aboutus.asp
- Hostess. "A Twinkie take on a wedding cake." http://www.hostesscakes.com/twinkiewedding.asp
- International herald Tribune. "Banana-flavored Twinkies make a comeback." June 13, 2007. http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/06/13/business/twinkies.php
- Recipe Zaar. "Twinkie Novelty: 12 Recipes." http://www.recipezaar.com/recipes.php?categ=novelty&q=twinkie
- Sagon, Candy. "Twinkies, 75 Years And Counting." Washington Post, April 13, 2005. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A46062-2005Apr12.html
- Shaw, Kurt. "Photographers sink teeth into snack cakes." Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, March 27, 2005. http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_317029.html
- Snopes.com. "Forever Twinkies." http://www.snopes.com/food/ingredient/twinkies.asp
- USA Today. "30-year-old Twinkie soon to become teacher's legacy." August 13, 2004. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2004-08-13-twinkie_x.htm