Friday, May 23, 2008

Twinkie, Deconstructed

In spite of the interesting information I have gleaned from Twinkie, Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger, I can't really recommend it unless you are truly interested in where the tongue-twisting items on a processed-food ingredient list come from. It just isn't very well written. Ettlinger gets caught up in the corporate secrecy cloak and likes to reiterate just how top-secret the places are that he was allowed access to, how hard it is to find out any useful information. I can understand his surprise at the level of secrecy, I suppose, since we don't think of food factories as housing any big secrets, but once he discovered that most of the ingredients were chemically created, often from petrochemicals, the surprise should have faded. At least I found it tiresome to have all the cloak-and-dagger mentions interfering with the narrative - especially since he just dropped them into the flow, rather than making them integral to the story.

A bigger problem is that so many of the ingredients are made in substantially the same way, with slightly different catalysts and reacting agents. His organizational structure, going down the ingredient list, forced him to retell basically the same two or three stories over and over. While this does make it easy to look up specific ingredients, the book would have been easier to read if he had grouped the ingredients by manufacture method, and it would have shed more light on the nature of the ingredients. He could even have added a lot more (publicly-available) information to clarify each major processing technique, such as explaining how hydrocarbons that fuel cars turn into carbohydrates that fuel people. Salt, minerals, and the various soda derivatives would have benefited from juxtaposition and contrast, as would the many ingredients derived from petrochemicals: how are things the same and how are they different? Instead, they are jumbled together based on the list order, making it hard to gain any overview of the processed-food industry.

The last chapter is apparently Ettlinger's defence of the processed-food industry, which is redundant (given his enthusiasm for its products), confusing, and ill-conceived (he conflates farmers with refineries at one point). He has packed a lot of information into the book, but it doesn't make for an entertaining read in spite of his best efforts.

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