Imagine, for a moment that the unthinkable has happened. Whether due to nuclear war, climate change, an asteroid impact, or one too many classic 80’s movies being remade, society has utterly collapsed, leaving only a handful of survivors clinging to life amid the rubble of civilization. Every day, you and your loyal – if mildly radioactive – dog set forth into the wasteland in search of some morsel of food to sustain your bleak existence. Most days these foraging trips yield little but a handful of wild mushrooms, some insects, and the occasional rat or squirrel. But today is your lucky day. As you sweep through the decaying remains of an abandoned convenience store, something catches your eye: a familiar flash of blue and red, an inviting golden hue, the sparkle of a cellophane wrapper. Could it be, you wonder, as you cautiously approach? Yes: against all odds, you have stumbled upon that rarest and most sought-after of treasures, a fabled relic of the old world: a Hostess Twinkie. Reverently you pull apart the wrapper and place the precious confection to your lips. Though years have passed since the fall of civilization, the sponge cake is still fluffy and buttery, the vanilla creme still smooth and nauseatingly sweet. For a brief moment, you are transported back to a time before you had to scavenge for mushrooms and squirrels and avoid marauding bands of cannibal mutants. You suddenly remember what life is all about, and regain the will to keep soldiering on.
Few foods have acquired so legendary a reputation for unnatural longevity as the Twinkie, with many claiming that the humble sponge cake and creme concoction can remain perfectly edible for up to 50 or 100 years. This has led to the popular joke that Twinkies – along with cockroaches – will be one of the few things to survive a nuclear apocalypse – and for more on our potential six-legged post-apocalyptic overlords, please check out our previous videos Could Cockroaches Really Survive a Nuclear War?
But is this really true? Can America’s favourite snack really survive decades without decomposing? Well, book yourself a diet cheat day, prep your insulin, unwrap your favourite sugary snack, and let’s dive right in.
The beloved Twinkie first appeared on store shelves in the 1930s, the brainchild of the Continental Baking Company of Schiller Park, Illinois. Like many bakeries, Continental suffered from an annoying logistical problem: the fluctuating seasonal availability of fruit – particularly strawberries. Every year, once strawberries were no longer in season, machines used to make prepackaged strawberry shortcakes sat idle for months, costing the company a valuable revenue stream. To get around this problem, manager James Dewar repurposed the machines to produce sponge cakes filled with banana cream (hence why the Twinkie itself has the shape and coloring it does- an attempt to make it look a bit like a banana). Inspired by an advertisement for “Twinkle Toe Shoes”, Dewar dubbed his new creation “Twinkies.” During the Second World War bananas were strictly rationed, forcing Continental to switch to vanilla flavouring – which, despite being largely produced in Axis-occupied Madagascar – was still freely available in the United States – see our video Forgotten History: The US Military’s Obsessive World War II Ice Cream Crusade.
After the war, the reformulated Twinkies sold like, well, hotcakes, thanks in large part to Hostess – the brand name under which the cakes were sold – sponsoring the popular children’s television programme Howdy Doody. Indeed, so popular was the vanilla creme filling that Hostess never returned to the original formulation, only issuing limited runs of banana-creme Twinkies on special occasions. But while Twinkies became one of America’s iconic snack foods – even being considered for inclusion in the US Millennium Time Capsule in the year 2000 as an “object of enduring American symbolism” – it also earned a reputation as a particularly unnatural and unhealthy source of empty calories, its association with an idle, unhealthy lifestyle even forming part of an infamous legal defence. On November 27, 1978, disgruntled former San Fransisco City Supervisor Dan White assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk over their refusal to re-appoint him to the City Board of Directors. During his trial, White’s lawyers claimed that their client was suffering from diminished mental capacity due to severe depression – evidenced, they argued, by his increased consumption of unhealthy junk food including Twinkies. Ultimately, White was convicted of involuntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder, triggering a series of violent protests known as the “White Night Riots” and leading to the diminished capacity defence being abolished in California in 1982. The infamous “Twinkie Defence” made headlines across the nation and fed into the growing perception of the Twinkie as an absurdly unhealthy monstrosity with an unnaturally long shelf life.
At first glance, the notion that Twinkies don’t decompose seems rather plausible. After all, if popular culture is to be believed, the beloved snack cake is composed entirely of synthetic chemicals, with not a single natural ingredient used in its manufacture. According to some accounts, Twinkies aren’t even baked, but rather made of synthetic foam injected into a mould and allowed to expand and solidify. And even if Twinkies do contain some natural ingredients, they are pumped so full of emulsifiers, stabilizers, preservatives, and other chemicals that no self-respecting bacterium or fungus would go anywhere near it.
This would make sense…if any of the above were remotely true. Rather disappointingly, the contents of your average Twinkie are actually rather mundane – and the myth of its infinite shelf life just that: a myth. In fact, being a bread-like product, the shelf life is actually not that different than, well, a typical loaf of bread.
When first introduced in the 1930s, Twinkies were made with all-natural ingredients – mainly flour, milk, butter, and eggs – and had the shelf life to match: a mere one or two days. Over the following decades, however, Hostess gradually extended the shelf life of its most famous product. This was largely accomplished by removing the most perishable ingredients – namely dairy products and eggs – from the recipe. The original creme filling was replaced by a mixture of palm oil, corn syrup, and emulsifiers like sodium sterol lactylate and ethylene oxide, the egg in the cake by polysorbate 60, and the butter by diacetyl, the same compound used to flavour microwave popcorn. Yet while in total Twinkies contain some 30 exotic-sounding chemical ingredients, only one – sorbic acid – is technically classified as a “preservative.” And despite what detractors may claim, Twinkies are not made of expanding foam but are indeed baked like any other cake before being injected with creme filling and sealed in individual cellophane wrappers.
So, what absurd longevity does all this chemical replacement and manipulation result in? In 2012, just before Hostess filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the official shelf life of a Twinkie was a whopping…wait for it…26 days. Impressive for baked goods, perhaps, but a far cry from the years or decades of the popular Twinkie myth. However, in March 2013 the Hostess brand was acquired by the private equity firms Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos & Company and production resumed, causing Twinkie fans everywhere to rejoice. As part of this relaunch, the Twinkie recipe was tweaked once again, further extending their shelf life to an incredible…45 days. So, despite what pop culture may claim, despite the best efforts of Hostess food scientists, Twinkies absolutely can and do go bad – and fairly quickly at that.
“But ultra sexy and infinitely charming, feared by men, adored by women, TodayIFoundOut author,” I hear you ask. “Aren’t sell-by dates incredibly conservative? How long can a Twinkie actually last?” While no formal studies have tackled this incredibly important scientific question (YET… we’re working on it), a number of unofficial experiments have come close to providing a definitive answer. The longest-running of these experiments was started in 1976 by Roger Benatti, a science teacher at the George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Maine. As Benatti recalled in a 2005 interview with NPR:
“We happened to be discussing food additives and different chemicals that would be placed in foods for various reasons, and we were discussing food preservatives. And a student happened to ask me, `How long would a Twinkie last?’ And my answer was, `Well, I have no idea, but let’s do an experiment.’ So I sent a student down to the general store, which was next door to our school, and he picked up a package of two Twinkies. He brought it up to the classroom. I unwrapped the Twinkies, and I immediately ate one. And I simply placed the second Twinkie on top of the blackboard, and we began our experiment.”
There the Twinkie remained for nearly 30 years, exposed to the open air, temperature fluctuations, bacteria, mould spores, and countless other environmental hazards. Yet the little sponge cake has held up remarkably well, as Benatti described:
“Well, it’s rather dusty. I must admit, in the past year, because of its fame, it’s been sort of taken out and shown more in the past year than in the previous 30 years. So it’s begun to sort of exfoliate a little bit. It’s starting to flake off just a tad. But it’s sort of an off-yellow, dusty-the bottom appears to be a little, you know, perhaps moldy, but just a little bit of the bottom of it.”
The famous Twinkie currently resides in a glass display case in the office of current science teacher Libby Rosemeier, who returned it to the science department upon her retirement in order to keep the experiment going as long as possible. But while the Twinkie appears to be in good shape cosmetically, no one has yet been brave enough to determine whether it is actually still edible. Thankfully, someone else has already taken that particular culinary bullet… for science.
When Hostess filed for bankruptcy in 2012, fans of the brand’s signature snacks went on a shopping spree, buying up all the remaining Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and Zingers before they disappeared from store shelves forever. Among these was former Pennsylvania biology teacher Colin Purrington, who purchased three Twinkies for what he called “future giggles”, stored them in his basement, and promptly forgot about them. Eight years later, while cleaning out the basement, Purrington rediscovered the nearly decade-old snacks and was struck by how differently they had weathered the ravages of time. The first Twinkie was in relatively good condition, if a little grey and crumbly, while the second sported a quarter-sized patch of blue-green mould. The third Twinkie, however, had transformed entirely, shrinking down into a hard, shrivelled dark-grey mass resembling a mummified human toe.
While most people would simply have tossed out such rancid, expired snacks, Colin Purrington is not most people, and allowed his curiosity to get the better of him – with predictable results:
“When there’s no desserts in the house, you get desperate. I was just so bored with the pandemic. It’s terrible, but it just is mind-numbing after a while. Although I grew up thinking Twinkies would last for years, if not forever, I was wrong. The one I bit into was chewy, unsweet, and smelled like rotting ginkgo fruit. I gagged. It tasted like old sock – not that I’ve ever eaten old sock. I have nobody to blame but myself—the box clearly warned, ‘Best Used by Nov 26th’ (2012).”
Knowing that the difference between science and messing around is documenting your results, Purrington followed up his ill-advised gastronomic experiment by posting pictures of the decayed Twinkies in a series of Tweets. It is here that the mummified snacks came to the attention of Brian Lovett, a postdoctoral researcher in Mycology – the study of fungi – at West Virginia University. Lovett immediately contacted his colleague Matthew Kasson, an Associate Professor of Forest Pathology and no stranger to the decay process of sugary junk food. The previous year, Kasson conducted a study to determine how well various moulds would grow on marshmallow Peeps, the classic easter candy. The verdict? Not well at all, as it turns out. For while Peeps are full of nutrients that microorganisms normally thrive on, they are so dry and supersaturated with sugar that most bacteria or fungal spores landing on them are immediately desiccated and killed. This is, incidentally, why honey never spoils and can extremely effectively be used to protect open wounds and burns from infection. See our video The Surprising Number of Medicinal Uses for Honey and Why They Work
Kasson and Lovett immediately contacted Purrington, who agreed to donate his remaining Twinkies for scientific study. The pair initially focused their attention on the Twinkie with the mouldy spot, transferring a sample of the spot to a dish of growth medium and placing it in an incubator to grow. The sample yielded a strain of the common indoor mould Cladosporium, which the team speculate entered and colonized the Twinkie through a hole tear in the cellophane wrapper. But it was the grey, mummified Twinkie which truly captured their imagination. The Twinkie’s unique appearance, they speculate, is due to fungus colonizing the cake before it was sealed in its wrapper:
“You end up with a vacuum [inside the package]. And very well that vacuum may have halted the fungus’s ability to continue to grow. We just have the snapshot of what we were sent, but who knows if this process occurred five years ago and he just only noticed it now.”
Hoping to determine which fungus was responsible, Kasson and Lovett attempted to sample hardened, shrivelled lump – a surprisingly challenging task they eventually succeeded in performing using a bone marrow biopsy tool. To his surprise, they discovered that the Twinkie still contained traces of its original creme filling, speculating that, as with marshmallow Peeps and honey, the creme contained too much sugar to be hospitable to most bacteria and fungi. Unfortunately, however, these samples failed to yield any sort of fungal culture. As Lovett later stated:
“It may be that we don’t have any living spores despite this wonderful, rare event that we’ve witnessed. Spores certainly die, and depending on the fungus, they can die very quickly.”
While the Twinkie study hardly counts as groundbreaking science, Lovett nonetheless sees it as a valuable contribution to the field of Mycology, helping to emphasize the vital role of fungi in the natural environment and stimulate reflection on our relationship with death and decay:
“We’re living in a time where we’re all really grappling with our mortality. Eventually, all of us are food for fungi. Seeing that is sort of facing the reality of our mortality and our destination.”
Colin Purrington was rather less philosophical, tweeting:
“My advice to the world: if you discover 8-year-old baked goods in your basement, examine them carefully under bright lights before eating them. I don’t care how hungry you are.”
In conclusion, while a Twinkie can survive largely intact for at least several years, you really wouldn’t want to eat it. So should the apocalypse finally come, it’s probably best to get your nostalgic snacking out of the way as soon as possible. For nothing – not even a Twinkie – lasts forever. And all of us will eventually be forgotten, even humanity itself… Nothing matters and we’re all going to die and become food for lesser life forms…
Expand for References
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Godoy, Maria, The Science of Twinkies: How Do They Last So Darned Long? NPR The Salt, July 10, 2013, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/07/09/200465360/the-science-of-twinkies-how-do-they-last-so-long
Greenfieldboyce, Nell, A Disturbing Twinkie That Has, So Far, Defied Science, NPR, October 15, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/10/15/923411578/a-disturbing-twinkie-that-has-so-far-defied-science
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Mantia, Patty, Boys Bury Twinkies for Nine-Month Taste Test, Wallowa County Chieftain, June 10, 2009, https://www.wallowa.com/news/boys-bury-twinkies-for-nine-month-taste-test/article_4696b1db-f967-599d-817e-9ae28bb5ecec.html