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Image: Twinkies packages
Tim Boyle  /  Getty Images
Ever wonder about the ingredients in a Twinkie? A determined author and researcher and a self-described "obsessive-compulsive" photographer have gotten to the heart of the matter.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 8/26/2010 10:42:29 PM ET 2010-08-27T02:42:29

Could an argument be made that the Twinkie — the ubiquitous snack cake with decidedly mysterious origins — is in fact an “all natural” foodstuff?

It’s a question that’s dogged Steve Ettlinger for years. The author of the book “Twinkie, Deconstructed” spent months of his life interviewing chemical engineers, questioning industrial bakers and even traveling 1,600 feet below the surface of the Earth to see where Twinkie ingredients are mined. (Mined!)

To be sure, the Twinkie contains easily recognizable ingredients, such as flour, sugar, water, eggs, whey and salt. But Ettlinger dug and dug until he understood what the terms Polysorbate 60, Red 40, mono and diglycerides and calcium sulfate really meant. (Spoiler alert: Calcium sulfate is a food-grade equivalent of plaster of Paris.)

Image: Twinkie with cream filling
Tim Boyle  /  Getty Images
Twinkies have been a quintessential American snack food for the past 80 years. According to the Hostess website, they have a shelf life of 26 days.

But even if, as Ettlinger writes, many of the Twinkie’s ingredients are “more closely linked to rocks and petroleum than any of the four food groups,” they still technically come from the Earth, right? Hence the mind-bending “all natural” question.

It’s a question that affected San Francisco-based photographer Dwight Eschliman on a personal level. He read Ettlinger’s book — originally published in 2007 — and it made him think about his mom.

“I’ve never been a health nut. But I was raised by one,” Eschliman wrote on his website. “My mother wouldn’t let us kids within one hundred feet of meat, eggs, white bread, or any sort of processed food. She made homemade wheat gluten. How many moms do that? I don’t even remember seeing a Twinkie or Hostess Cup Cake until I left for college.”

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After striking out on his own, Eschliman relaxed his standards a bit and indulged in sugary cereals and salty, processed snacks. And then he became a parent himself.

“I started thinking a bit about food,” he explained. “I began to consider which foodstuffs are healthy and which are not. Given how much thought my own mother put into it, it was hard not to.”

It didn’t take long for inspiration to strike Eschliman: He decided to photograph all 37 or so of the ingredients found in a Twinkie, as outlined in Ettlinger’s book.

Image: FD&C Yellow #5, a Twinkie ingredient
Dwight Eschliman Photography
Mmmmmmmmm ... FD&C Yellow #5, just like mom used to make.

“I love the idea of taking any object and deconstructing it down to its component parts,” Eschliman said. “Essentially, I find great thrill in lining things up and photographing them.”

This led to his project “37 or So Ingredients.” Each photograph is an aerial view of a round glass plate that contains a single Twinkie ingredient in its raw form, from the highly identifiable (wheat flour) to the highly chemical (FD&C Yellow #5).

Ettlinger said he’s flattered that his book inspired the photography project.

“What Dwight has done is photograph the end result,” the New York writer, editor and speaker said. “I was looking at the process: Where does it come from? How is it made?”

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See the 37 ingredients Twinkie eaters ingest

That process of looking at the process was an eye-opening adventure indeed. Hostess Cakes, the maker of Twinkies, did not help Ettlinger with his research, but dozens of scientists, engineers, industrial bakers, mining professionals, Hostess competitors and former Hostess employees did. Ettlinger said he was astounded by what he learned — particularly his finding that Twinkies’ ingredients are “manufactured with fourteen of the top twenty chemicals made in the U.S.”

“The unlikely food sub-ingredients sulfuric acid, ethylene, lime, and phosphoric acid top the list,” Ettlinger wrote in his book. “That industrial aspect of our food — and Twinkies are but one among tens of thousands of processed foods — would be less troubling if it were easier to still see where it all comes from. There is often no ‘terroir’ to an ingredient, no one place that it is actually from.”

Has all of this affected the way Ettlinger and his family eat?

“Oh, yes,” he said. “It definitely inspired me to eat much more whole and local foods. It definitely makes those feel more appetizing and appealing.”

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