What’s In It?

One day, Steve Ettlinger was sitting at a picnic bench with his two children absently reading the ingredient label from his ice cream bar when his daughter asked him “… what’s pol-y-sor-bate six-tee?”

Ettlinger realized in that moment that while he’d been reading content labels for processed foods for years, he didn’t actually know what a lot of the ingredients were or where they came from. He decided to find out.

Thus the book Twinkie, Deconstrcuted was born.

Ettlinger decided to start his journey with a single, ubiquitous processed food that most of us have eaten at some point in our lives, the Twinkie and similar snack cakes, and find out what goes into a typical one, where it comes from, and how it’s processed into popular golden snacks.

The result is a fascinating tour of American foodways blessedly free from moralizing, shaming, cheerleading, or bluster. Ettlinger has opinions and quirky thoughts, but leaves the individual reader to decide what to do with the information he’s passing on. Along the way he shows us the sometimes surprising connections between such varied items as: snack cakes, health foods, industrial solvents, and glues.

There are challenges aplenty to assumptions on all sides of arguments about how food is produced, and what the potential dangers of highly processed foods may or may not be. For instance, as of 2007 when this book was published, nobody could point to the potential health effects – if any – of high fructose corn syrup. Why? Because while it has been added to everything from fruit juice and sodas to snack crackers and Twinkies, no long-term study has been done on it. This means we don’t have any proof one way or another to whether it has anything to do with the much ballyhooed ‘obesity epidemic’ or rising rates of diabetes, both of which can be more than adequately explained by a variety of other reasons… nor do we have any proof that it has nothing to do with any specific health risk. That means that food purists can always point to it as a potential threat, and corn growers and food manufacturers can equally validly point out that it hasn’t been proven to cause anything at all.

On the other hand, it’s interesting to note that vegan meat substitutes might well not exist without the humble Twinkie.

With a refreshingly breezy tone and the even more refreshing assumption that readers are more than capable of choosing how to use facts presented in their lives to their own ends, it’s also a tremendously fun read.

One thing is for sure: if you read this book, you will understand more about the complex ways simple foods are produced and brought to market in America.

And if your six year old ever wants to know what polysorbate sixty is, you will have an answer.

4 Responses to “What’s In It?”

  1. barbara September 3, 2012 at 10:36 pm #

    That sounds really interesting! Though I can’t actually remember the last time I ate a twinky. My parents didn’t let us eat stuff like that when I was growing up. I remember being so jealous of kids with twinkies or hohos (or whatever) in their lunch box.

  2. Kristen September 4, 2012 at 7:08 am #

    Oooh, thanks for the recommendation! It’s been added to my Kindle. I just finished Tomatoland, and before that was Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. I love a good food production book, especially when it doesn’t have a lot of moralizing.

  3. raincoaster September 4, 2012 at 8:51 am #

    You say that like the existence of vegan meat substitutes is a GOOD thing.

  4. MrsBug September 4, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    I read this and loved it. Fascinating. I had to google a bunch of ingredients, but amazing.