Surprising Food Science: Twinkies Aren't So Eternal, After All

By Wesley Fenlon

Hostess Twinkies last 45 days on the store shelf. Days, not weeks or months--and that's actually longer than they once lasted.

If there was one element of 2009's Zombieland that was hard to believe, it was the scarcity of Woody Harrelson's precious Twinkies. Those things last forever. Right? Perhaps the entirety of human civilization had turned to an all-Twinkie diet, turning the processed snacks into an endangered food. Or maybe Zombieland's writers were predicting the Twinkie's death with Hostess in 2012.

Either way, Zombieland's writers may have been onto something. It turns out that the ubiquitous idea of the eternal Twinkie isn't so accurate, after all. After an interruption in production related to Hostess' bankruptcy proceedings, Twinkies came back to grocery stores and gas stations in 2013 with nearly double the shelf life that they once did. How many years did these new Twinkies linger in the snack aisle, you might ask? Zero. They can only stick around for 45 days.

Photo via Flickr user nexus_icon.

A month and a half--that's how long Twinkies are meant to stay "fresh." And that's a big increase from the previous 26 days. Why don't they last longer? Aren't Twinkies composed entirely of weird chemicals and toxins sure to give you cancer 30 years down the road? Or, at least, make you fat? How could something so artificial go bad so quickly?

Steve Ettlinger, author of the book Twinkie, Deconstructed, says that the snacks are primarily flour and sugar. The rest of the ingredients, like polysorbate 60 and diacetyl, are there to replace butter, milk and eggs, which would spoil long before 45 days were up. All those ingredients go towards making the Twinkie taste buttery, though there's no butter, and making the creme taste like real creme, though there's no milk and only about 1/500th of a real egg in each snack bar.

Those ingredients go towards keeping Twinkies fresh for longer than natural ingredients would, but they're not exactly edible months or years down the road. Give a Twinkie a year, and it'll lose that precious softness. Give it 37 years, and it'll look like the ashen survivor of a nuclear apocalypse. It will still hold its shape, but we wouldn't want to bite into it.