Jeffrey Tucker

Oh how everyone (of a certain class and income) makes fun of the Twinkie, the ultimate symbol of modern food decadence and phoniness. I don’t get it. Have the critics ever tried one? They are so appealing and delicious: light, spongy, sweet, and creamy, all in a tiny package.

The news that the parent company Hostess was going out of business caused a huge run on Twinkies in my own community. Every store had an empty space where they should have been. The preppers were right: we should have stocked up for emergencies like this.

Meanwhile, the haters have been generating a legion of lies about Twinkies ever since food puritanism took over elite culture. Therefore, the urban myths are legion. You know them all. It can stand up to a nuclear holocaust. It is made entirely of artificial ingredients, the ultimate frankenfood. It is responsible for the obesity epidemic. And so on.

So don’t you just know that plenty of cultural snobs and anti-market ideologues were experiencing serious schadenfreude at the news that the labor unions have strangled Hostess? They are probably thrilled to kick this snake out of the American garden of Eden they are trying to create and cast the whole line of products to the Mexican outer darkness.

It pains me. It really does. More than half a billion Twinkies are sold every year. They bring incredible joy to multitudes who don’t happen to live next to an old-world French pastry shop. The market has been bringing this treat to the masses for 70 glorious years, and all that the cultural elite can do is sneer.

Let’s take just a moment to give the Twinkie a bit of respect, as a symbol of the complex economic structures of our time that cannot be replicated by you, me, or any government in the world. It takes a giant market, an extended order of trade, and an unfathomably complex division of labor to make a Twinkie and deliver it to your pallet.

No, it would never existed in an economy planned by the government. Moving mountains and shipping ingredients all over the world just to please you and me? It would never be allowed. Plus, there is no way a government planner could make it happen. The processes are too complex and carefully calibrated by the price system to be economically feasible.

Let’s quickly kill a few myths. Contrary to the claim, it is made of 100% natural ingredients. Everything in it comes from the earth — as much a product of mother nature as a carrot or bean sprout — with the only difference that it goes through a more extensive production process through time and space. And the reason for the long processes: to make a better product for you and me (which no one forces us to eat).

Twinkies have a remarkable and laudatory shelf life of 25 days, which is rather wonderful for something so puffy and moist. it stays fresh for a time long enough for you to consume it and enjoy it. Time was when hardtack was pretty much all that could last for long travels. Do the food puritans want us eating that rather than yummy sweets? (I don’t want to hear the answer.)

It’s a myth that it can survive a nuclear explosion but it seems to me that it would be a good thing if it could. Why should survivors of war-torn lands not have access to good food that contains essential proteins in eggs and a source of energy in its cane sugar?

And let’s give a hand for the Hostess company’s marketing too. Unlike the Apple and Monsanto, the Twinkie benefits from no monopoly protection from government. Anyone can make an imitation and plenty do, such as Mrs Freshley’s Gold Creme Cakes and Little Debbie’s Golden Cremes. Still, the Twinkie survives with a high name-brand status, or did until the unions killed it. This nicely demonstrates that “intellectual property” is not necessary for profitable production over a long period of time.

It turns out that there is an entire book that details what is in a Twinkie and how it is made. It is Twinkie, Deconstructed, by Steve Ettlinger (Hudson Street Press, 2007). He began the book to try to figure out what all the strange ingredients listed on the label actually are. There are 39 of them, and he devotes a chapter to each one, discovering one by one that every ingredient serves the essential purpose of making the product better. If he began the project with the goal of exposing this frankenfood, he came away from the long project with profound respect for the food item.

As Ettlinger tells the story, the Twinkie was the invention of Charles Dewar, vice president of Continental Bakeries, who figured out how to idle shortbread pans for a different purpose besides make a strawberry treat, which he could not make in the off season (in the old days, there were such things as off seasons). The basic ingredients were the same as they are now (wheat, sugar, soybeans, and eggs).

The name he came up with from seeing a billboard for “Twinkle-Toe Shoes.” It was a great plan, and the cakes were hugely popular, except for one thing. The shelf life (the holy grail of food retailing) was only two days. The market for the cake was huge but the company couldn’t satisfy the demand. It took decades of research and experimentation but the probably was finally solved in the 1950s, and that’s when the ingredient list became longer.

For most of the Twinkie bakeries around the country, the wheat for the cake flour (which is highly specialized) comes from small, family farms (including Amish farms) that have only a few employees, thanks to technology. The enrichment blend of ferrous sulfate and B vitamins is added to white flour on government mandate, presumably to end the disease pellagra. If you don’t like the extra vitamins and iron, call your congressman.

Ettinger explodes other myths such as that Twinkies roll off an assembly line and go straight to the packet. Not so. They are baked and browned just like regular cakes, and that’s because, well, they are regular cakes. But do they need to be so sweet? The sweeteners work as preservatives, adding color, and causing the ingredients to blend better. Plus, we like sugar. But not too much, which is why corn syrup is also in there because it doesn’t crystallize.

(If U.S. sugar tariffs didn’t drive up the price so high, the company might have been able to withstand union pressure more. Also, while I’m against corn subsidies as much as the next guy, every baker knows that corn syrup has its place. And anyone who blames it for the rise in obesity might take note that the average daily calorie intake of Americans has risen by 600 since 1980, and corn syrup only accounts for 10% of that. A more obvious factor: people eat vastly more because they can afford to and it’s there to eat.)

The demonized preservative in the Twinkie is the miracle food compound called sorbic acid. How the ancients would have loved this stuff! It’s sole job is to keep the mold away. Mold is the stuff that forms around moist areas such as your bathtub. If there isn’t anything in food that molds — think of pita chips — you don’t need it. But once you add leavenings, eggs, cream, and put a wet and spongy thing inside a plastic bag, you have got a serious mold issue. You know this if you have even baked a cake and let it sit out for a few days.

Sorbic acid — it was discovered in berries in 1859 in berries but today is made as a gentle petroleum product with less toxicity than salt — is the earth’s greatest enemy of mold. It is an amazing compound that makes grocery stores possible. If you see something like that in a bag that says “no preservatives,” run don’t walk. It could be deadly. As it is, the Twinkie only contains tiny trace amounts, just enough to make the product safe for you and me.

People today use the word preservative as if to insinuate that it is some poison that capitalistic corporations insert into our food to profit from poisoning us. Actually, people have struggled to preserve food since the beginning of time. The line between food that gives health and food that kills is a tiny turn of time, practically one minute to the next.

Modern preservatives were discovered at the dawn of modernity, at the height of the Renaissance when music and painting became truly beautiful, when the masses starting eating like kings, and when the common person first had a chance at social mobility. Preservatives meant that the average person had a greater chance at not dying from eating.

If you doubt it, put flour, milk, and egg in a bag and put it on the counter overnight. I wouldn’t suggest eating it.

Don’t tell me that Twinkies kill. They are made the way they are precisely so that the food will not kill — thereby solving a huge problem that has vexed us for millions of years. Preservatives preserve your life. As a result, anyone can have access to a legendary dessert treat without having to bake at home or live close by to a pastry shop.

The market works astonishingly hard for you to have a Twinkie. Its creation is the culmination of work that began in the ancient days and continues to now, and it combines technology, an unfathomably complex division of labor, trade among all nations from China to the Middle East to Oklahoma, and a level of capital sophistication that just blows the mind.

Put it down if you want to — that’s your right — but don’t take its existence for granted, much less celebrate when the coercive power of unions shut them down. The unions and sugar tariffs are doing to a great company what mold does to food. Sadly, we’ve got no ingredient to defend enterprise against parasitism. The U.S. is made that much worse off without the Twinkie. Our loss is Mexico’s gain.

Jeffrey Tucker

Original article posted on Laissez-Faire Today

Jeffrey Tucker

I'm executive editor of Laissez Faire Books and the proprietor of the Laissez Faire Club. I'm the author of two books in the field of economics and one on early music. My main professional work between 1985 and 2011 was with the MIses Institute but I've also worked with the Acton Institute and Mackinac Institute, as well as written thousands of published articles. My personal twitter account @jeffreyatucker FB is @jeffrey.albert.tucker Plain old email is tucker@lfb.org

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