Last Updated Mar 25, 2011 9:30 AM EDT
Today, the spongy snack cake is a widely-lampooned concoction of several dozen ingredients, many of them artificial, almost all of them highly processed. Although Twinkies are by no means alone in this camp, its industrial ingredients are so legendary that a photographer in San Francisco composed a surreal visual display of all of them and writer Steve Ettlinger did a book trying to trace them back to their source, seeking an answer to his son's question, "Daddy, where does polysorbate 60 comes from?".
But back when these quintessentially American treats were first launched in the 30's, they were made using real bananas and real cream, much like a traditional banana cream pie. The banana flavor came not from powerful flavor chemicals but bananas. They also resembled real food in that they didn't last very long before going bad. After bananas were rationed during WWII, the company, then called Continental Baking Company, switched to vanilla cream filing and never switched back.
Yes, they really don't make things like they used to.
As you might expect, Hostess' contemporary version of its vintage banana Twinkies, which were last seen in 2007, doesn't exactly replicate the original recipe. Not that we know exactly what that was, but it's safe to say that high fructose corn syrup and soy protein isolate weren't in it. But to its credit, Hostess does include some actual banana in its 2011 banana Twinkies, even though it may be a mere suggestion of the tropical fruit. Two thirds of way into the ingredient list, under the section "Contains less than 2% or less of," is banana puree.
And while the banana puree in a Twinkie may represent 1/20th of an actual banana, the inclusion does make them more authentic than, say, Quaker Strawberries & Cream Instant Oatmeal and the whole slew of other packaged foods that imply they're made with fruit or other real ingredients, but aren't.
Quaker Strawberries & Cream Instant Oatmeal, which is made by Pepsi (PEP), is a truly modern product in that it contains no cream and no strawberries. There's a soybean oil-based "creaming agent" and artificially colored and flavored apples masquerading as strawberries.
The flaws in Hostess's return to the past, which also includes limited-time retro packaging for Ding Dongs, Ho Hos and cupcakes, lie in the company's failure to realize that in many ways the American eating public has gone back in time too, seeking out products that their grandma would recognize as food. It's strange and radical to conceive of a natural Twinkie where the banana flavor comes from ample banana and the cream is dairy-based, but dramatic changes are exactly what Hostess, a struggling company that spent four years in bankruptcy, needs.
Image from Hostess Brands