12. “Twinkie, Deconstructed,” Steve Ettlinger

The subtitle is “My Journey to Discover how the Ingredients in Processed Foods are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into what America Eats.”

My over-all reaction is just a big “eh.” I was expecting more muck-raking and generally more intrigue (that is, I expected to be more intrigued) than this pretty harmless list of chemical names provides. I did pretty well in chemistry, but that’s only because my wonderful teachers carried me (shout-out to Angie Melcher and Dr. Rivkin!). It also just seemed weird in this day and age to talk about high-fructose corn syrup and red dye #40 without talking about how people are shitting themselves over how scary these things are (or aren’t?).

Maybe the honey moon is just over for me and the cultural history of a noun books, but I kind of doubt it. In fact, my problem may have been that there wasn’t enough culture here. This book was mostly like an episode of “follow that food.” We go to the mines for salt, the oil fields for hydrogenation, but there’s not a lot of talk about the cultural meaning of these products. I’m writing this when not quite finished with the book, and here’s an excerpt from the page I’m on:

Shanghai Dyestuffs Research Institute Co., Ltd., the largest synthetic food color producer in China, plays a very important role in creating colors: reacting aniline in a metal sulfate to create sulfanilic acid (a common metal sulfate is magnesium sulfate, aka Epsom salts.)
Meanwhile, Sinopec refines naphtha and ethylene out of more crude oil and combines them to make naphthalene (a rather unlikely subingredient for a food ingredient, this is the main ingredient in old-fashioned mothballs). Shanghai Dyestuffs reacts this with another acid and plain old table salt to make something called Shaeffer’s Salt, the key ingredient in both red and yellow [food dyes].” (250-251)

This is pretty characteristic of the writing style in this book. It’s how things happen, I guess, but not what it means. I don’t know what naphtha is. I barely know what ethylene is. So their creating naphthalene doesn’t mean much. Ettlinger obviously is great with science stuff, but maybe not great at translating that to non-science audiences. The result is uneven and occasionally a little patronizing. And it’s the worst kind of patronizing, too, where you don’t know the information but just resent being talked down to, so you can’t even stomp your foot and be like “yeah, duh, napphthalene, like msot chemical intermediaries, is frequrntly reacted wit ha large number of other chemicals to produce wildly different results. For example,
naphthalene sulfonic acids are used in the manufacture of naphthalene sulfonate polymer plasticizers or dispersants, which are used in the production of concrete and other building materials, like drywall. In addition to their use as dispersants for dyes and tanning agents, they are used in a similar capacity are also used in pesticides and Lead-acid battery plates. But all of that is hardly the same as your insinuation that we’re eating sugary mothballs.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!) I do. however, know enough to say “I’ve noticed that a lot of things contain both carbon and one oxygen, but they are probably not going to smother me if I eat them in my garage.”

So, to sum up, I think overall the implied audience (people who enjoy science) and actual audience (people who enjoy snack cakes) for this book are quite different.

The book also felt really stilted to me. I only just put a finger on it: each chapter is about a different ingredient and overall it has the feeling of a large stack of pamphlets created by Hostess to dispel some unsavory rumors about how theirs is the most-processed food of all time.

The last chapter is fairly redeeming and more what I expected overall. In it, he cautions us against being too paranoid over food additives, because we have been adding things to food to change their behaviors or prolong shelf life forever– salt and sugar, for example. But the biggest gift this book gave me is my continued attempts to make flour dust explode.

Page count: 263
Page total: 2,802

Edit: The author was kind enough to comment below. Go see!

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  1. January 26, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Sorry you were disappointed by my book! I struggled to strike a balance between accurate science and engaging writing. I have heard from both sides that I failed to do either! As for suggesting it is bad or good for you, I decided to leave that the many other authors who focus on that, and tried to imply that processed food ingredients are probably not the best thing for our environment.

    In order to remain accessible, I tried to incorporate a bit of humor where possible. But in fact, you are right, this is reporting on something amazing and intriguing.

    It is clear that when consumed in small amounts most artificial ingredients are not bad for us — I checked and checked with nutritionists and did major research, and found nothing worth emphasizing. On the other hand, I found that some well-known additives were indeed killing us — with trans fats, for example — and made sure that was clear. And it is obvious that continuing to eat lots of artificial things is not the way to go.

    Most foodies have embraced the book as supportive of eating whole and fresh foods.

    Just couldn’t resist writing! Check out my website for more info…www.twinkiedeconstructed.com

  2. Eli
    January 26, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    Somehow when I was writing this, I had an odd feeling that you might find it! Thanks for writing, I love when authors reply.

    I struggled to strike a balance between accurate science and engaging writing.

    I think that’s what I meant about the actual and implied audiences bit. It felt to me like you were writing for a crowd that knew more science than I did or than I thought would be expected for the topic. Nothing wrong with that, I just thought I was reading a different book than I was.

    Incidentally, I noticed your comment when I came over to add this link in response to my own complaints about the scienciness of the book: Science Channel Refuses To Dumb Down Science Any Further.

    It is clear that when consumed in small amounts most artificial ingredients are not bad for us

    The last chapter, as I said, was more what I was hoping for over all: acknowledging some of the (perceived) problems with how heavily processed a food like a Twinkie is while pointing out that the science says we should probably all just get a little perspective. I found your treatment even-handed and fair– just not what I was expecting. Which might be a good thing!

    Thanks again for writing.

    –Eli

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