Ever since I got my first taste of food journalism with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ve been an avid reader in the genre. I’ve always felt like the more knowledge I have about my food, the more I understand the world and how it works. So I’ve decided to share my thoughts on the food books I’m reading. (To be fair, I’m not actually reading these books so much as listening to them – I use my substantial commute to fit in my non-fiction reading.)
I stumbled on Steve Ettlinger’s Twinkie, Deconstructed when I was searching for a book on Amazon, and it was listed as a similar book. Its subtitle is My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats, and it is exactly that. For detail nerds like myself, the book provides a wealth of information on the origin of each of the individual ingredients of a Twinkie. Since many of these ingredients are the quintessential building blocks of processed foods, they are things that are not unique to Twinkies, and also not entirely unique to our own pantries. For example, baking powder is technically a processed food, as is white flour.
However, this book will also tell you where polysorbate 60, high fructose corn syrup, sodium stearoyl lactylate, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil come from. (The book begins with a conversation that the author had with his children about where the ingredients in an ice cream bar came from. He ended up choosing Twinkies to investigate, since they are a classic American snack food and also are the subject of a great mythos, with rumors about their abilities to survive a nuclear holocaust alive and well.)
At first I thought, why do I care where these ingredients come from? If they aren’t pronounceable and I don’t already know what they are, I don’t want to eat them. But the more I listened/read, the more I realized that it IS important for me to understand the ingredients that I choose to avoid in my diet, if for no other reason than to explain to people why I’m not comfortable ingesting them.
If anything, this book made me yearn for more transparent information about where our food comes from. Even Ettlinger admits that the FDA guidelines are not as clear as the Chicago Manual of Style. Why not? We do we not demand more of our government that is charged with protecting our food supply? This is the argument that’s at the heart of the GMO labeling debate, though that’s another topic for another time.
Ettlinger asks the question, if chemicals are found in nature, when does a chemical become a food? Why are some chemicals found in nature classified as “unnatural” when they occur in nature, in some form? That’s a good question too. Shouldn’t we just admit that all food is made of chemicals and just get on with it? Even an apple is made up of chemicals, at its root.
Somehow I’m not buying that argument, though. The entire world is made up of chemicals – so are our bodies. But that doesn’t mean everything should be ingested. The book suggests that these ingredients have been vetted for safety, since the government classifies them as “generally recognized as safe.” Generally recognized isn’t a category that I’m going to put my faith in, when the only people that have to recognize the ingredient as safe are the ones who are being paid by companies who stand to make a large profit from this recognition.
Also, just because these ingredients have been around for 50 years doesn’t mean they are “safe.” Sure, eating a Twinkie may not cause you instantaneous distress or illness. But what about long term effects? Why can’t science explain why our society just keeps getting sicker and sicker? Why can’t they explain why there are little girls developing breasts at age 6 and why autism is so much more prevalent than it was even 20 years ago? Why is it “paranoid” of me to be skeptical of eating a snack cake that doesn’t really even fit the standard definition of cake?
Ettlinger’s reporting of the details of the component parts of Twinkies is certainly impressive, especially in an industry known for secrecy. But I didn’t really see the book as a compelling argument for why one should eat a Twinkie at all. At the end of the book, he describes the experience of eating a Twinkie, obviously from the perspective of someone enraptured by its taste, texture and nostalgia as opposed to someone like me, whose gag reflex is activated by the chemical, fake taste of Twinkies and the like.
But I couldn’t help but wish that after all his investigations and the knowledge of what’s IN those finger-sized spongy treats, he would have ended up a skeptic too.
Full disclosure: I will admit that when Hostess announced its bankruptcy plans last year and the Great Twinkie Rush of 2012 was on, I had Mark pick up a Snowball for me, since I had never tried one and feared I was missing out. (I think I watched The Mirror Has Two Faces too many times.) One bite and I knew exactly why I don’t eat them. Gross. I think I had to scrape my tongue.