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You Are What You Read

By Margaret Black

Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into What America Eats

By Steve Ettlinger

Hudson Street Press, 282 pages, $23.95

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

By Michael Pollan

Penguin Press, 2006, 450 pages, $26.95

We need to pay attention to our food—real attention—and this means learning where it comes from and how it’s grown, processed, and delivered. At one time everyone knew where their food came from, but not now, and small wonder. What is the polysorbate 60 that Steve Ettlinger’s little daughter finds on her food label? A responsible father, Ettlinger doesn’t just pop off to Google for the answer. He takes a much longer route, investigating all the ingredients contained in that quintessentially manufactured food, the Twinkie. In this pursuit, he follows a host of other writers down a particularly popular new literary track—probably first blazed by Mark Kurlansky in Cod—where the author investigates every possible aspect of a food’s history and handling, and in doing so stumbles across wonderfully arcane information.

Michael Pollan, on the other hand, poses the big question in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Since people eat just about anything, what are we eating these days, and is it safe and wholesome? To answer this question he explores four meals, one made from items in the “industrial food chain” (what most of us eat from most of the time), one from the organically grown industrial food chain, one from locally grown organic food on a farm in Virginia, and one that he literally hunts and gathers himself.

It’s not altogether easy for Ettlinger to deconstruct a Twinkie. Some things he says may antagonize Hostess, the company that sells the little yellow-colored sponge cake with its “cream” filling. And Twinkies contain a long list of ingredients, whose manufacturers or processors are often loath to let people see what they actually do. National security is involved, they announce. And trade secrets, of course.

Ettlinger’s investigation begins simply, with wheat. He explores its characteristics to identify the soft red winter variety used for cake flour, and that leads him to a modest-sized family farm in Maryland. But that’s the last time he’s anywhere that we’d like our food to come from. Quickly he arrives at a plant that bleaches the flour (“no chlorine, no Twinkie”), which then moves along to receive its “enrichment blend,” those vitamins—an increasing number from China—added to help keep us healthy despite the nutrients removed by processing.

Next comes sugar (sucrose). Here is one of many times when Ettlinger’s experience as a chef lets him explain what an ingredient actually does. In addition to contributing sweetness, sugar also tenderizes the cake by absorbing protein in the flour and by stabilizing beaten egg foam. (Sponge cakes should have a lot of egg foam; Twinkies actually don’t. Our author is terrific on identifying what additives replace what originally important ingredients.) But sugar is expensive, so the ingredients include a variety of cheap corn sweeteners, and once we arrive at corn derivatives, Twinkie-making goes full-blown industrial. Here’s where mega-giant corporations Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill come into the act, processing around 12 billion bushels of corn, half of it genetically modified.

Now the tragic, truly scary, horrible story of present-day corn and its effect on our food, our economy, and frankly our ethics is far better told by Pollan, but Ettlinger does a handsome job of depicting corn kernels as they are transformed by soaking, milling, centrifuging, heating, blowing in vast futuristic factory structures to become dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS, a recent laboratory wonder child that’s cheap, sweet as sucrose, and helps account for the explosion in worldwide obesity), cornstarch, and a huge host of other food and nonfood products.

Ettlinger explains shortenings and emulsifiers like lecithin—which puts fat and water together but it also works like an egg yolk, not unlike polysorbate 60. But actual wet (as well as dried) eggs also make their way into Twinkies. In fact my favorite section in this book describes the “egg-breaking facility” near Newark Airport that cracks 7 million eggs a day. After eggs, the ingredients move into items such as cellulose gum, whey (adds protein, shelf life, gives a smooth texture; also popular in shampoo, acne medicine, chewing gum, and plastic packaging), baking powder and soda, salt, mono and diglycerides, sodium stearoyl lactylate, flavorings (the artificial butter flavor helps make up for a lack of guess what actual ingredient), and colorings. I’ve left out a few.

Because Ettlinger seems to fear, with good reason, that his book resembles those educational movies they used to show in school, he tries to perk up what are actually fascinating processes with cutesy cleverness or pathetic alarmism that produces awful embarrassments like his tedious subtitle with its ridiculous “mined (yes, mined).” Nevertheless, despite the clumsily arch tone he sometimes adopts when he thinks he’s getting too technical, he is excellent at explaining processes, and particularly when it involves the function of ingredients.

Presumably because Ettlinger did not come across as a liberal foodie firebrand, he was permitted to observe far more processes than was Pollan, and the people who showed Ettlinger around the various industrial facilities were often very forthcoming. While Ettlinger is dry-eyed about much that he saw, he can’t help being impressed by the incredible ingenuity and complexity of modern-day food-processing and by the discoveries over the past hundred years that have transformed food preparation and preservation. Nor can I. It is amazing.

But Pollan, when he talks about the industrial food chain, clearly demonstrates that a Frankenstein monster has been unleashed—it’s not lurking in the wings any more. This is spectacularly clear in the corporate manipulations of corn. National policy favors an extensive overproduction of corn; those who grow this corn don’t ordinarily benefit, but the large processing corporations do, and they find ever more extensive uses, most of which require ever-expanding consumption of fossil fuels. Some of these uses seem plausible, even desirable, but excess corn is also misused, to fatten cattle, for example, despite the fact that because cows are not natural eaters of corn (they eat grass), they get sick and need antibiotics, thereby degrading the usefulness of antibiotics in humans.

While Pollan wasn’t let into many processing sites—he is identifiably a liberal foodie—he did buy his own steer, which he followed from the grasslands of South Dakota to a feeding lot in Oklahoma where he watched the beast stand in a desolate pen, leg deep in manure, eating corn he couldn’t properly digest. It comes as a huge relief, therefore, that Pollan later gets to Polyface Farm in Virginia—what the owners call a “grass farm”—to see that animals (not just cows, but chickens, rabbits, and pigs) can be profitably raised for consumption in a fashion that allows them to live a very natural life. Because Twinkies don’t contain animal ingredients, Ettlinger doesn’t deal with issues relating to meat, but this subject adds a vast, difficult dimension to Pollan’s book.

Pollan regards corporate organic farming as being only marginally better than the industrial food chain. It doesn’t add pesticides to our diet, but it requires similar ungodly amounts of fuel to transport around the country. His organic heart lies, understandably, with local and regional produce, handsomely exemplified by Polyface Farm. Managing the multiple components of this farm—forest, grass, animals, portable fences and pens—is so ingenious its description is worth the price of the book. Among the many impressive things about this complexly interwoven enterprise is that it transformed its site, initially an eroded barren waste, into a rich productive farm and woodland. The mind and imagination at work here offer some hope that perhaps intelligence can be more extensively applied to achieve healthy, ethical, and sustainable food production, and not just huge corn-processing sites.

The hunting-gathering escapade that constitutes Pollan’s final section seemed to me at first a mistake, because I’d mentally organized his book differently. But I have to admit that it is one of the best-written parts, and is rewardingly funny to boot. Pollan becoming a hunter (of wild pig, a pest in northern California) had me laughing out loud, especially when he turns on himself, recognizing that he has not offered one hint of irony in his encomium to his hunting experience. And his searches for wild fungi—his whole disquisition on mushrooms—is precisely the sort of fascinating arcane information I spoke of at the beginning.

Both books let us know much about how our current food supply system works, and it is clear from Pollan’s compelling indictment of the industrial food chain, particularly the pernicious marriage between corn and greed, that much of the system does not work to the benefit of the general public or the environment. Yet while the owner of Polyface Farm may respond, “Who needs New York?” when asked about feeding cities, in reality we have to figure out how to feed everybody, not just those people who live near food sources. Clearly a third book needs to be written, one that initiates a serious public discussion about how to feed the world in a fashion that is at once safe, healthy, sustainable, and ethical.

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