Steve Ettlinger is an interesting man. In about a dozen previous books, he has often demonstrated not only his interest in and concerns about various consumer issues and realities, but has investigated each to a degree not commonly found in books written for the general public. For example, The Complete Guide To Everything Sold In Hardware Stores, The Complete Guide To Everything Sold In Garden Centers, The Complete Guide To Everything Sold In Marine Supply Stores, and Guides For Dummies to both French and Italian wines, he probes each seemingly obvious area to a degree of depth and detail so that more than information is provided: Reading his books can be more accurately characterized as an experience.
In the volume at hand, his newest published effort to date, he chooses one seemingly simple, immensely popular and globally ubiquitous food snack item, the Twinkie to scrutinize, one ingredient at a time, as a sometimes humorous and sometimes gut wrenching example of what has come to pass as food in our times. He is not picking on these readily recognizable little cream-filled snack cakes. Rather, he is using them as a paradigm representative example of how foods and non-foods alike are processed and folded into our intake supply. He raises more questions than he answers - seeing his responsibility as primarily that of providing consumers with information that might be helpful to them.
He researches, visits manufacturing plants, speaks with various company people and winds up with a chapter by chapter analysis of the etiology, processing and purpose of each and every ingredient listed on the Twinkies label. In case you have not read one lately, these include in descending order of volume in the product: Wheat Flour; Bleach; Ferrous Sulfate; B Vitamins - Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate (B1), Roboflavin (B2) and Folic Acid; Sugar; Corn Sweeteners; Corn Syrup, Dextrose, Glucose and High Fructose Corn Syrup; Corn Thickeners: Cornstarch, Modified Cornstarch, Corn Dextrins and Corn Flour; Water; Soy: Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil and/or Animal Shortening, Soy Lecithin and Soy Protein Isolate; Eggs; Cellulose Gum; Whey; Leavenings; Baking Soda; Phosphates: Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate and Monocalcium Phosphate; Salt; Mono and Diglycerides; Polysorbate 60 (the ingredient his own child asked about that got the author going on this subject); Natural and Artificial Flavors; Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate; Sodium and Calcium Caseinate; Calcium Sulfate; Sorbic Acid; and FD&C Yellow No. 5 and Red No.40. Quite a list from something that looks simple enough to have been made from flour, sugar, water and cream (which it, originally, was!)
I expect that we have all looked at ingredient lists from time to time - some of us with more scrutiny than others - but this analysis of each and every thing that has gone into a particularly well known product is, in my experience, both unique and profoundly informative. Not just about Twinkies but about the nature of our entire food supply, much of which contains various degrees of processed ingredients. This book is, then, a close look at one product but is best understood as a microcosmically specific look at a MUCH larger situation. Processed foods we consume every day.
Bullet statements on the back of the dust cover, raise the aura of the themes presented, documented and offered up for our information and consideration. Among them are:
-Flour dust is explosive
-Homeland Security figures prominently in modern food production
-Glucose, the form of sugar that adds bulk and sweetness to Twinkies' crumb and filling, also adds glossiness to shoe leather and prolongs concrete setting
-The iron compound in enriched flour is also used as a common weed killer
-Only a small percentage of the 750 pounds of cornstarch that's manufactured annually goes into food like Twinkies. Two-thirds is used to make paper, cardboard and packaging "peanuts."
-When cooked, cotton cellulose is transformed into a soft goo, perfect for lending a slippery sensation to the filling in snack cakes - and rocket fuel
-Phosphorous, one of the seven elements necessary for life, is also what puts the glow in tracer bullets and causes artillery shells to explode.
As it turns out, some of the ingredients start off as natural foods and are processed into an entirely unnatural component. Some others are not now nor were they every naturally occurring substances - they are lab creations. Man made chemicals. Some were pretty clearly never intended to be ingested by animals - human or otherwise. Some seem likely harmless while others sound insidiously toxic. From a manufacturing point of view, each and everyone makes sense to achieve one of three basic goals. These are to 1) Extend the shelf life of the product; 2) To keep the cream filling and cake around it from blending into each other while they await consumption and, of course 3) To keep the costs of production as low as possible so as to increase the profit margin to the greatest degree allowable by the FDA.
There are natural, or MORE natural food alternatives to just about everything. Some may be worth a try. I remember swearing off red meat for a year or so after reading Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in college. I have had a similar reaction to processed "foods" that turn out to contain little if any actual "food" since finishing this book.
If you already have strong opinions about this subject, I doubt that this book will change your mind - unless you are open to having it changed. Whether or not it causes you to rethink some of your eating habits, I think the curious will find it an engaging, entertaining and at times frightening read. Check it out!
on July 13, 2007
Asked by his children what the ingredients in a Twinkie creme-filled cake really were, and where they came from, Steve traveled the world to find out, interviewing over a hundred people in the process. The book is well-written in the sense that it can be read very fast, and is entertaining until the number of technical errors and chemophobia intrude, which for me began on p8. I happen to enjoy processing plant and mine tours, even vicariously, and do not shy from hundreds of facts and factoids. It was fascinating to find where the biggest plants were that made the ingredients of a Twinkie, which are: wheat flour, bleach, iron(II) sulfate, vitamins B1, B2, B3, sugar, corn sweeteners, corn thickeners, water, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, lecithin and soy protein isolate, eggs, cellulose gum, whey, leavenings, baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate, salt, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 60, natural and artificial flavors, sodium stearoyl lactylate, sodium and calcium caseinates, calcium sulfate, sorbic acid, FD&C Yellow No. 5 and Red. No. 40. All but 2 of the chapter headings follow this ingredient list. There is an inadequate index and no references, an ominous sign of what is to follow. There are no pictures or drawings, which this topic screams for. The concept was excellent, as were the metaphors. Between that and the potential entertainment value my rating would have been 5-star, even though the target audience was 12-14 years old, IMHO.
A fine appreciation of food chemistry was finally given on p258-260: "The fact that chemicals, especially those in foods, are part of nature..." Well and good, but Steve infiltrates all kinds of snide comments about "chemicals" almost everywhere else, such as one about the surprising purity of synthetic chemicals as opposed to natural (p208) -- the reverse of the truth -- that most natural chemicals are mixtures, and many synthetic ones are very pure. Part of the difficulty is that Steve does not define what a chemical is, or know the difference between an element, a compound, and a mixture, or between a rock and a mineral. Except on p173, where Steve appears to understand that the reactive and toxic elements, sodium and chlorine, react to form salt (sodium chloride), which has none of the properties of its precursors. Time after time he tries to scare the reader by implying that the toxicity of the precursors (called intermediates by chemists) somehow makes it into non-toxic products. On p261: "...try reflecting on the fact that one of the world's most lethal chemicals, chlorine, and one of the most reactive chemicals, sodium, have an exalted place...[in] the salt shaker." This, sadly, is more typical. Of course, there is no elemental sodium or chlorine in salt, and the properties of the elements do not persist in salt. And a rock should not be confused with a mineral.
So to repeat grade-school material, all substances are chemical. Dreams and electronic phenomena are not. Substances are either pure or mixtures. The smallest stable units of matter in substances are molecules. In an element, all the atoms in all the molecules are the same, except for isotopes, which still have the same chemical properties. In a compound, meaning that 2 or more elements are present in the molecule, all the molecules are alike. Sugar (sucrose) is a compound formed from a glucose and a fructose with loss of water; it is not a mixture of glucose and fructose as Steve claims (p71). A rock is a mixture of minerals. Granite is a mixture of the minerals quartz, mica and feldspar, and most minerals are well-defined compounds. Eating refined salt or calcium sulfate is not the same as eating rock. Steve wrote that the toxic and flammable element phosphorus is part of the Twinkies recipe (p154). This is nonsense. Steve never learned from a chemist to write: "phosphorus compounds, phosphates, are part of the Twinkies recipe"; no, he has to scare us and give chemicals in general a bad name on almost every page.
Steve wrote: "Ferrous sulfate is light gray with a bluish tinge, just as you'd expect an iron derivative to look" (p42). Pure iron(II) sulfate is actually pale green, just as I would expect it to look.
Steve wrote: "Despite being a mere mineral, calcium is really a so-called earth metal, like sodium...(p232). Calcium is not a mineral, because it is never found as the free element. Steve meant gypsum (calcium sulfate), I think. Calcium belongs to the family of elements called alkaline earths and sodium is in the family of alkali metals.
Whenever Steve has trouble with the chemistry of a food additive, his writing becomes very terse and flawed. From p250: "A reaction of benzene with nitric acid, itself a product of hydrogen (usually from natural gas) and nitrogen (usually from liquid air) that have been passed over over a thin platinum wire mesh, makes nitrobenzene and leads to the all-important aniline, a colorless oily liquid with a strong, pleasant odor that happens to be highly poisonous." When this is untangled, we find: (1) the reaction of hydrogen and nitrogen over a heated catalyst of iron oxide and potassium aluminate at 400 atm leads to ammonia, not nitric acid; (2) ammonia and air are heated to 650° and passed over a platinum/rhodium catalyst to make nitric acid, not nitrobenzene; (3) benzene and nitric acid with considerable sulfuric acid yields nitrobenzene; (4) nitrobenzene with iron powder or hydrogenation over nickel gives aniline; and (5) aniline does not have a pleasant odor in my nose. None of this makes much sense to a non-chemist without pictures of the molecules involved, which are sorely lacking. All the reactions are over 100 years old, so industrial secrecy should not have been an issue.
Steve fell for the myth that eating saturated fat causes hardening of the arteries (p181). See "The Cholesterol Myths" by Uffe Ravnskov, 2000; and "The Modern Nutritional Diseases" by Ottoboni.
A list of another 50 errors are available by e-mailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
My wife has worked for years as a safety manager in the food industry, so I didn't expect too many surprises when I read this book. After all, I had been hearing about some of these products for about 15 years, in one fashion or another. And it didn't come as a shock that what is in snack cakes is also found in chips and cereal, as much of highly processed food is similar in content; it's just the arrangement that changes.
Maybe I took these materials for granted, as I have seen them in their finished state in boxes which the companies were getting ready to use. Somehow a material that is labeled "... Company Concentrated Chip Spice (Sour Cream & Onion)" just does not seem as intimidating as the chemicals presented in this book.
I was disgusted by the manufacturing technique of many of the chemicals, but realize that the science of chemistry is taking one molecule and making it into an entirely different molecule in the quickest and cheapest method possible. As long as the hazardous reactants are removed, I'm not really that terrified by eating most of these compounds, although I'm not that thrilled, either.
I can't wait to show my daughter this book, as she insists that canned spray cheese is really cheese, even though I keep telling her it is cheese food product. Reading this book will make her realize the difference between cheese food product and real cheese!
I did find the book fascinating and easy to read. The author did a wonderful job of blending the material with its source, its manufacture and then with its need within the recipe for the finished product. It was somewhat like reading a travelogue, a cookbook and a chemistry book rolled into one. Although the chemistry is fairly complex, the author does a wonderful job of digesting it into terms that even a chemistry dummy like me can understand and enjoy.
While I will look at a lot of foods differently, this book won't change what I eat. It will change my ability to understand and appreciate just what went into the finished product. I would highly recommend this book for anyone with an interest in what they eat, in chemistry or in cooking. It is incredibly well written and will certainly make you think about what you are eating and the cost associated with our love of junk food.
on June 9, 2008
Anyone who's ever eaten a Twinkie remembers the experience, even if it's been years. The textured, firm, sweet dough combined with the intense vanilla creme (not cream, mind you) filling is distinctive and, especially when you're a kid, delicious, yet obviously somehow sinful and wrong and unnatural at the same time.
Twinkie, Deconstructed is a perfect "sick day in bed" book: a sort of "science lite" non-fiction tome that's fascinating, informative, and non-polemical while still making a political point. I finished it in a little over a day while in the hospital.
The concept is brilliant. Prompted by a question from one of his kids, Ettlinger, a long-time science and consumer products writer, tells a story of traveling around the world to find out where each of the dozens of ingredients in a Hostess Twinkie comes from--in the order in which they're listed on the package. In doing so, he visits a lot more factories than farms, and encounters many more industrial centrifuges than ploughs.
Some reviewers think that Ettlinger got co-opted into the "Twinkie-Industrial Complex" (as he calls it) during the writing of the book. They think that he is too accepting, too uncritical, and indeed too friendly to the various large corporate interests who show him (or, in many cases, refuse to show him) around their facilities and processes. But I think he's smarter and more subversive than that.
Here's something from page 195:
"In an undisclosed location, perhaps in an industrial park near Chicago, maybe in rural, central Pennsylvania, possibly in riparian Delaware, in a plant full of tanks, railroad sidings, and a maze of pipes and catwalks, big, stainless steel vats are filled with fresh, hot, luscious, liquefied sorbitan monostearate."
Or check out this label-text Kremlinology from page 255:
"...while it seems that not one natural color is use in Twinkies, sometime the label has said 'color added,' which would make me suspect that annato, the butter and cheese colorant that is popular with [Hostess's] competitors, is indeed in the mix. But their punctuation indicates otherwise. 'Color added' is followed by '(yellow 5 red 40)' which would seem to indicate grammatically that they are the only colors involved."
One of the most obvious stylistic effects throughout the book is that whenever Ettlinger first mentions a trademarked product, he adds the registered trademark symbol: Yoo-hoo(R) Chocolate Drink, PAM(R) cooking spray, Clabber Girl(R), Davis(R), and Calumet(R) baking soda, and so on. Normally you'd only see things written that way in a press release or corporate brochure.
You might think he was simply pressured by company lawyers, but when I read the book every trademark symbol seemed to me like a wink from the author, an unavoidable reminder that while he's breezing along in his personal, gee-whiz style, he hasn't forgotten that the process of Twinkie-making is huge and industrial, one that has only a little to do with baking and nourishment, and a lot with multinational chemical firms and drill rigs and mines and massive tract farms.
Twinkie, Deconstructed is no Silent Spring, or even Super Size Me. It's neither a manifesto nor a satire. It's not horrified at what Twinkies are made of--because ingredients originating from petroleum or minerals rather than food plants or animals is part of the Twinkie legend. What's surprising is only how far some of those ingredients have to travel, and how extensively they have to be mangled, reprocessed, ground, dissolved, flung, and dried before they get used in even minute quantities to bake those little cakes.
Ettlinger's book is, I think, more effective because he doesn't politicize it overtly. He simply tells us, repeatedly and relentlessly, about conveyor belts, pipes, pressure vessels, railroad cars, noxious chemical reactions, huge stainless steel tanks, monstrous earth-moving equipment, and what obviously must be enormous quantities of energy used in all those processes. He talks just as blithely about factories that refuse to tell him where their ingredients come from at all as he does friendly chemical engineers who show him around less secretive facilities. You can draw your own conclusions.
I did find myself wishing, at the end, that he had calculated how much energy a single Twinkie consumes in its manufacture--how much oil or coal or gas, or how many kilowatt-hours of electricity, it takes to bring all those ingredients together. And I was surprised that, after nearly 300 pages of background, Ettlinger never actually describes step-by-step how a Twinkie is made at the Hostess bakery.
But Twinkie, Deconstructed is a fun read. Whether you feel safe eating a Twinkie afterwards is a message you can safely infer from the book, rather than having to be clubbed over the head with it.
The theory behind this book was sound; sadly, the execution was much less so. Despite a clear, organized plan for exploring what goes into a Twinkie and where those ingredients originate the writing is scattered and hard to follow. Historical notes, plant visits, useless descriptions of unimportant details, related thoughts and other miscellanies jostle each other in chaotic paragraphs with no clear train of thought or progression. Chapter transitions are blatant and elementary, tacked on like afterthoughts in a freshman lit paper.
Two other aspects of this book were perpetually frustrating.
First was the incessant cheerfulness the author expressed about each ingredient's role in making Twinkies the wonderful product that he considers them, regardless of how terrible that given product may be for human consumption. The fact that hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup are highly damaging to human health was generally irrelevant compared to their miraculous ability to give Twinkies their unique texture.
Second was the severe redaction of information. To be fair, Ettlinger opens his book with a disclaimer: recipe changes, company mergers and ingredient production processes change so frequently and without notice that what he writes may well have become inaccurate or obsolete by the time it reaches readers. Unfortunately, the specifics one might expect to find so carefully covered by such a clause are nowhere to be found. We learn more pointless details about the non-descript buildings and innumerable trucks involved in the industrial processes than we do about the actual ingredients or their creation.
All in all, I was thoroughly disappointed in this book and recommend skipping it in favor of any number of better alternatives.
on April 1, 2007
This book is full of good general information about what we are eating these days. It covers many of the basic ingredients used in the modern food industry from basic salt and flour to FD&C Red #40. He attempts to cover everything from the history of the food to what else the products are used for in a concise and easy to understand manner. He avoids taking a side on certain conflict ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup, but still presents both sides of debates when they exist.
Overall, it is an interesting collection of information that has been compiled into this book, and I think it is important reading material for anyone who really wants to know what they are eating. What hit me the hardest when reading this book is just how processed and industrialized we have become in America with our food. It is mind-opening to realize just how dependent we are on certain companies and plants for some aspects of our food production we really are.
Overall, an excellent and important read.
on October 13, 2013
Steve Ettinger's "Twinkie, Deconstructed" provides insight on the ingredients that come together to make Hostess® Twinkies®. Upon diving into the book, I found myself wading in a kiddy pool of ingredient names and mediocre jokes. I thought that with a catchy title and controversial product I was sure to be entertained for the duration of the book. Unfortunately, I was bored after chapter three.
I initially became interested in reading this book after taking part in a chemical engineering course that focused in applied food science and engineering. After learning about federal regulations on preservatives and the loopholes that exist in the food labeling industry in a few lectures, I thought this book would give me a look into what actually happens in the production of a Twinkie®. I knew that I was bound for disappointment when Ettinger stated in his note to the reader that "Interstate Bakeries Corporation...was initially receptive to [his] requests for tours and interviews. However, after twenty-four hours of contemplation, the company declined [these requests] via phone" (xiii). You can imagine my frustration after reading a sentence that went against my entire reasoning for choosing the book in the first place!
Ettinger states that his composed of information that is provided to the public and I though this would be enough to tech me something at least. The book is set up to discuss each ingredient in a chapter dedicated solely to it. While this is helpful to gain an understanding of how each ingredient is made, it lacks continuity. As a reader, I longed for more connections between the ingredients, how they influence each other, and why they are used in conjunction. As an engineering student, I wanted more data to support the ingredients discussed, either listings of other products with similar ingredients used or even brining more comparisons of home cooking to processed foods in a large manufacturing setting. Also in the engineering mind set, I was left empty when the societal, political, and regulatory factors behind the ingredients were not always discussed. Though I was let down, I can see why this book has been doing well. It does provide the average reader with a look into what goes into processed foods and sometimes why they may be necessary for successful production of the food item. It also bothered me that some chapters were lengthy to cover breadth and depth of the ingredients while others were short snippets titled as `chapters'. Overall, Ettinger did just fine for a book that describes what a Twinkie® is made of - the goal the title of the book outlines.
Most assuredly, if I were walking through a Barnes and Noble I would pick up this book as a gift for any one of my friends. It does describe the ingredient origins, treatment, and distribution. This allows for, as Ettinger describes, for you to "...be able to suss out the bouquet of fresh, Delaware polysorbate 60, and good Georgian cellulose gum; a hint of prime Oklahoman calcium sulfate, or that fine Midwestern soybean shortening, if not the finest high fructose corn syrup Nebraska has to offer" (262-263). A large focus on the topics I wanted to hear more of would probably disinterest some readers, but in this case, I was the only one let down. Excuse me while I go grab a Twinkie® and a glass of milk.
on November 7, 2012
I think this book would be worth finishing some time, but the time is not now. I got to page 181, out of about 263 pages of text. The author, Steve Ettlinger, describes the raw materials that go into a Twinkie and many other processed foods. He had some difficulty getting into the processing plants, so many of his sources are off the record. To my disappointment, Twinkies are mainly made of wheat (soft red winter wheat to be precise, which is higher in starch and lower in gluten and proteins than other kinds of wheat) rather than something synthesized in laboratory from oil or coal tar. Also, don't rely on Twinkies as sustenance in the event of a civilization-ending catastrophe, as they have a shelf life of about a month.
There does seem to be a good deal of chemistry involved in coming up with the corn and soybean-based products often used in Twinkies, such as modified cornstarch, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening and lecithin, also made from soybeans. I had the impression that processing plants for these raw materials might resemble an oil refinery. Strong acids and solvents used in organic chemistry labs are commonly used in the processing.
In addition, some raw materials are mined rather than grown. Double-acting baking powder is made from three kinds of rocks, and table salt is also usually mined.
The book can have a repetitive feel to it, probably because the book is structured, chapter by chapter, as one ingredient after another. I also suspect that the author's grasp on basic chemistry is a bit shaky. I've noticed that there is a review on Amazon.com with a detailed list of errors, which because I am not a food scientist (I have a science background, but not in chemistry or food science) I can't usefully comment on. I think I usually figured out what the author meant to say. Still I certainly learned a lot, was puzzled by some things (why do manufacturers use so many different emulsifiers?), and mostly enjoyed the book.
I posted a very similar review first on goodreads.com
on December 29, 2015
Watch out Harold Mcgee.
I have always admired the Twinkie as an industrial product.
As food, not so much.
This tells its story well
It is an awesome creation, a piece of craftsmanship and history.
on September 29, 2013
If you're looking for a scathing condemnation of the processed food industry in America, you won't find it here. Steve Ettlinger's ingredient-by-ingredient deconstruction of the Twinkie has a decidedly positive spin to it. He stresses the point that even common household staples such as baking powder are composed of chemicals, and that the vast majority of the myriad processed ingredients in foods like Twinkies have been tested for safety many times over, and used in foods for decades, sometimes centuries. The value of this book lies in the huge amount of information packed inside it. Ettlinger goes to the real source - the farms, the mines, and the factories - of these ingredients, dissects them, and provides interesting bits of history about their discovery as well. If your goal is a true, thorough understanding of exactly what these bizarrely named ingredients like polysorbate 60 and mono and diglycerides actually ARE and where they come from, this book will tell you everything you want to know, and then some.