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Geek Trivia: The never-ending pastry

What is the official shelf life of a Hostess Twinkie, and what makes this longevity possible?

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Believe it or not, April 6 is the 75th birthday of perhaps the most popular packaged snack cake ever seen in the face of the Earth—the Twinkie. On this day in 1930, Chicago bakery manager Jimmy Dewar concocted the world's first batch of Twinkies, and junk-food fanatics have been reaping the benefits (and consequences) ever since.

As with most inventions, Twinkies were the product of as much opportunity as inspiration. Dewar worked at Hostess' Schiller Park, IL bakery, and he was looking for a way to make better use of specialized shortbread-finger baking pans. Shortbread fingers were a seasonal treat made only in summers, and Dewar wanted to find some use for the finger pans for the other nine months of the year.

In what some would term a stroke of genius, Dewar filled the pans with golden sponge-cake batter and then piped sweet filling into the baked finger cakes. Thus was born the first Twinkie, though it differed slightly from the version sold today.

Rather than piping in frosting-like vanilla cream, Dewar's original Twinkies boasted a banana filling. The vanilla cream filling wouldn't become a standard feature in Twinkies until World War II, when rationing and supply shortages made bananas too expensive to use as a base for consumer pastry filling.

After all, the Twinkie was a product of the Depression. Designed to be inexpensive—Twinkies originally sold for five cents per pair—it was therefore wiser to change the recipe than the price during wartime.

And, yes, Twinkies originally came in pairs, which has led some individuals to incorrectly theorize that the name was a play on the word twins. While the opposite is true—people sometimes refer to twins (including the Minnesota Major League Baseball franchise) as twinkies—Twinkies actually got their name from shoes. Dewar saw a billboard ad for "Twinkle Toe Shoes" and conjured up the name Twinkies for his paired pastry products.

Of course, the twin connection is far from the only urban myth attached to Twinkies. Foremost among these crackpot theories is the notion that Twinkies have a viable shelf life numbered in years, thanks in part to their bizarre chemical makeup. While Twinkies do have a relatively long shelf life for baked goods, they last far less than a year, and the secret to their longevity is hardly mad science.

WHAT IS THE OFFICIAL SHELF LIFE OF A HOSTESS TWINKIE, AND WHAT MAKES THIS LONGEVITY POSSIBLE?

What's the official shelf life of a Hostess Twinkie snack cake, and what aspect of the Twinkie recipe makes its comparative longevity possible?

Given average conditions, a pair of Hostess Twinkies can survive in the cellophane wrapping without appreciable loss of flavor or freshness for up to 25 days. While that's hardly equal to the multiyear life spans attributed to Twinkies, 25 days still constitutes a pretty long shelf life for a baked good. (Hey, would you eat a three-week old donut, even if sealed in cellophane?) If that's not long enough for you, the U.S. military's latest MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) ration packs have an estimated shelf life of five to 10 years, though Twinkies are reputedly a great deal more appetizing.

The secret to Twinkies' longevity, other than the obvious chemical preservatives, is that the Twinkie recipe doesn't include any dairy products. (Twinkies are also roughly two-thirds air by volume, so there's only so much food there that can go bad.)

But don't let the ever-freshness fool you: Twinkies contain a whopping 160 calories per cake, along with 5 grams of fat, (including 2 grams of saturated fat), 20 milligrams of cholesterol, 2000 milligrams of salt, 25 grams of carbohydrates—but zero grams of fiber. In other words, there's a reason many consider Twinkies to be the quintessential junk food.

The fact that some folks go the extra step of deep-frying their Twinkies in funnel-cake batter—an increasingly common confection at fairs and carnivals in the United States—is so unhealthy it staggers the imagination, though a TechRepublic staff member, Rex Baldazo, swears by these high-intensity treats.

Despite the less-than-healthy appeal of eating Twinkies, Americans consume more than 500 million of the snack cakes every year. Among these junk-food aficionados, Chicagoans consume the most Twinkies per capita, compared to any other market, which led The New York Times to designate Chicago the "Twinkie Capital of the World."

Kansas City, MO is the home of Twinkie headquarters—in other words, the Interstate Bakeries Corporation's Twinkie-related business operations. Seventeen different commercial bakeries across the United States actually produce these treasured treats. Now that's some half-baked Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the March 23 edition of Geek Trivia, "Tipping the scales." I wrote, "The Richter Scale is logarithmic, meaning that a magnitude 2.0 quake is more than 30 times stronger than a magnitude 1.0." However, TechRepublic member Mprentice felt I wasn't being completely accurate.

"The Richter Magnitude Scale measures the amplitude of the movement [of] waves caused by an earthquake, not the energy released. An earthquake of magnitude 2.0 has 10 times more ground movement than a quake of 1.0. That difference in movement then corresponds to about 31 times more energy being released. A logarithmic scale is a scale increase by 10-fold for each one whole point. You statement that it is 30 times stronger confuses the point."

You've made a fair point, dear reader. I'll be more careful with my logarithms in the future.

For more, check out the Geek Trivia Archive.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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