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Updated Monday, November 19, 2012 at 04:38 PM

A world without Twinkies: What does that symbolize?

By Jerry Large
Seattle Times staff columnist

I will not mourn the passing of Twinkies, but I can't help thinking about them.

They're symbolic. Twinkies are shorthand for junk food, for a lack of substance, for modernity's distance from the natural world, and more. Remember the "Twinkie defense"? Dan White killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and fellow city Supervisor Harvey Milk, and at his trial in 1979, his attorney said White was depressed. Switching from healthful food to Twinkies and the like was a supposed symptom of that depression.

So while I don't crave a Twinkie, they got stuck in my head when Hostess Brands, the company that makes them, closed after a national labor dispute.

The plant in Seattle (one of 33 nationally), is a drab, industrial-looking building off Aurora Avenue North. Shouldn't Twinkies be made in a happy place?

Apparently, things weren't so happy inside, either. The labor dispute was anything but sweet.

Unions said executives had gotten more money while asking workers to accept less. One labor leader called what was happening at Hostess a microcosm of what's wrong with America.

I feel bad about the lost jobs, but it occurred to me the workers were making a product that's not good for anyone's health. That's not nice, but they have to support themselves and their families. I started listing in my head all the jobs, in various industries, that involve producing stuff that's potentially harmful to the consumer, but I had to stop before I'd mentally shut down a good chunk of the economy.

Are Twinkies really so bad? What are you going to be eating Thursday? See?

A Twinkie can make someone feel good for a moment. I looked them up, and apparently each one has 150 to 160 calories, so eating a Twinkie every now and then won't kill anyone.

I read about an experiment in which a professor at Kansas State University went on a Twinkie diet for 10 weeks.

The researcher, Mark Haub, ate nothing but junk food, including Twinkies, and lost 27 pounds.

Haub was just trying to dramatize a point, that a person can lose weight with whatever they choose to eat as long as they consume fewer calories than they burn.

That's not easily done, so just the existence of foods that offer nothing beyond empty calories is a problem.

And, of course, 10 weeks is not a lifetime. Some damage takes awhile to show up, like obesity-related health problems, such as diabetes, that plague the country.

Having to work at not eating too much is a problem not many people in history have had. Neither is having to figure out whether what you are about to consume is actually food. Technically, a Twinkie is food, but it is also, like a lot of stuff on grocery shelves, not a naturally occurring food.

Twinkies started out in 1930 as concoctions of milk, flour, sugar, butter and eggs. Ordinary baking goods.

But they lasted only a couple of days on the shelf. In business, you want to find a way to maximize profit and minimize loss. Keeping food on the shelf longer is one way to do that. Over time, some original ingredients gave way to substitutes that made more financial sense. There are 39 ingredients in Twinkies, and I'm pretty sure neither you nor I could spell most of them. That doesn't automatically make them bad, but no one argues Twinkies are chock-full of good nutrition.

I suspect most of us have our guilty food pleasures. Something that we eat once in a long while, when kale just isn't enough. But there is much better stuff than Twinkies — how many great bakeries are there around Seattle? But everyone has his own poison.

Twinkies aren't dead yet. The company could be reborn, or another company could buy the name and keep making them. If not, we'll find a replacement for all the Twinkie symbolizes.

The Red Bull energy-drink defense, perhaps?

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @jerrylarge.


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