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Should Twinkies Carry Warning Labels?

By Megan Tempest in Food on Apr 8, 2010 4:20PM

This week marks the birthday of the sweet, spongy Twinkie, invented in a Chicago area bakery 80 years ago. According to the Hostess Corporation, “The Continental Baking Company hit the sponge cake gold mine in 1930 when Jimmy Dewar invented Twinkies. Seeing a need for an inexpensive product during the depression, Dewar made use of shortcake pans that were only used during the strawberry season. Dewar's idea was to inject the shortcake with a banana crème filling to make them a year-round treat and sell them two for a nickel.” Today Hostess operates several bakeries across the country, which bake 500 million Twinkies each year, requiring 8 million pounds of sugar, 7 million pounds of flour and 1 million eggs.

The shelf-life of a Twinkie is estimated at 25 days, thanks to a daunting list of 39 processed ingredients, the top 7 of which are:

  • Enriched Wheat Flour (wheat that’s been stripped of its fiber and original nutrients to produce a light, fluffy product - later “enriched” with a few vitamins and no fiber)
  • Sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • Water
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Vegetable and/or animal shortening - containing one or more of partially hydrogenated soybean, cottonseed or canola oil, and beef fat. (translation: trans fat)
  • Dextrose

Recently, First Lady Michelle Obama had an exchange about Twinkies at a forum on her anti-obesity campaign. She was asked if the snack should come with a warning label.

"You know, that strikes me as extreme, because a Twinkie is not a cigarette, you know. And what parents need is just information about what's in the Twinkie and how much of this can we eat. It's not that we can't have a Twinkie. And our kids would be pretty upset. And I am not supporting that. So all the kids out there — right? I'm all in favor of good snacks. We grew up with snacks and chips. We did. But we have to exercise more, parents have to understand what's in the Twinkie; again, how does it fit into the overall diet. So we don't need a warning, we need information."

Sure, a Twinkie is NOT a cigarette, but there are noteworthy parallels between the two. We know that, like cigarettes, one innocent Twinkie will not harm our health. However, eating them (and the many foods like them) on a regular basis over prolonged periods of time will. We know that consumption of trans fat (contained in Twinkies) increases risk of cardiovascular disease, and that 7 out of 10 deaths a year are a result of this condition (along with cancer and stroke). The American Heart Association estimates cardiovascular disease claimed 831,272 lives in 2006, amounting to 1 of every 2.9 deaths. Scientific evidence suggests that sugar has addictive effects on the mind and body, similar to nicotine. According to the American Cancer Society, each year 440,000 people die in the US from tobacco use. Of total deaths in 2009, nearly 1 of every 5 was related to smoking. A warning label on certain “junk” foods - for instance, “this food contains trans fat which may cause heart disease” - is entirely appropriate and possibly effective. The First Lady is correct that the public needs information to make educated food choices. Placing a warning label on foods like Twinkies is a direct way to communicate that information. What is so extreme about that?