Let’s pretend for a second that the human race went through an apocalypse. It doesn’t matter which apocalypse it is – be it nuclear war, a global epidemic or a zombie invasion – you’re one of the survivors; living in huts, wearing flamboyant, apocalypse outfits, whatever you like. What do you eat?
Some of you will talk about canned food, others will suggest growing their own crops, but there are quite a few people whose only course of action would be to head to the nearest Walmart, and stockpile mountains upon mountains of Twinkies. If you’re going to get obliterated by nuclear radiation or ripped apart by a zombie, what better way to go than with digested snack cake coursing through your veins?
Of course, Twinkies have gained a reputation as being the cockroaches of the food world. No, not because they’re creepy and disgusting (how dare you speak of Twinkies that way), but because they seem to be able to survive anything, standing strong when most other foods would have crumbled under the pressure of time.
While the official shelf life of a Twinkie – around 45 days – isn’t quite going to last you for very long in that bunker, it’s still six and a half weeks, long enough to raise quite a few eyebrows among snack cake lovers around the globe. Just how do Twinkies last so long? Not many people know, but fortunately for us, science might have the answer.
We’ve all eaten hundreds (if not thousands) of Twinkies in our lifetime, but if there’s anybody who can consider themselves a Twinkie expert, it’s Steve Ettlinger, who spent five years researching the spongy snacks for his book Twinkie, Deconstructed.
Describing Twinkies as “absolutely typical of all processed foods”, he nonetheless says that the majority of Twinkies is just flour and sugar, which is a little disappointing, I guess, but doesn’t really explain why they last so long, does it? It’s a tough one, I tell you. But if you bite into a Twinkie, the proof is literally in the pudding.
Just thinking about that delicious, creme filling is making my mouth water. But wait a minute: something that smooth, something that creamy, shouldn’t last anywhere near that long if it’s made from milk. But unfortunately, that gives us a big clue as to the science behind the longevity of the Twinkie.
Long story short: if Twinkies were made from the usual stuff a cake is made of (that is, eggs and milk), it simply wouldn’t be possible for it to last that long. Sorry to break it to you guys. But Ettlinger says that Hostess (the manufacturers of Twinkies) recreates the feel of a cake artificially, using ingredients that bind with water and oil to create that cake-like texture.
The butter flavor comes from diacetyl, the same compound food scientists use in microwave popcorn, while the “eggs” are polysorbate 60, which Ettlinger says is like “egg yolk, only more powerful”. Curiously, there are trace amounts of egg in a Twinkie, though Ettlinger “could never fathom why”.
It’s curious though, to note that there’s only one real preservative – sorbic acid. But that’s just a testament to all the science behind a Twinkie that still they manage to taste delicious. So the next time you bite into a Twinkie, try to think about all the doctors who worked round the clock to make it possible. Just don’t think about it too much.