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Taste test: Duo looking to test long-standing theory on Twinkies

When Brian Lovett and Matt Kasson, two West Virginia University scientists who study fungi, saw the Tweet from a Pennsylvania man who bit into an eight-year-old Twinkie and lived to tell the story, they knew they had to get in touch.

“Matt and I noticed the “mummified” and marred Twinkies on Twitter: A colleague posted an image and we offered to identify any fungal culprits for him,” said Lovett, a post-doctoral researcher in an email.

What Colin Purrington, who lives outside  Philadelphia, sent the two researchers was literally old Twinkies. He had purchased the Twinkies when he heard Hostess, the maker of Twinkies, was filing for bankruptcy, and had kept them in his basement since 2012, when Barack Obama was still president.

“I ate the old Twinkies because I was craving a sweet,” Purrington said. “We don’t keep desserts in the house, generally, as a way to minimize ad libitum snacking that would tend to inflate BMI. 

“But every so often you just have to have a dessert, and I found the box of Twinkies and thought it would be adequate. I was desperate and clearly did not demonstrate sound judgment. And, yes, I’d eat another Twinkie. I actually ate a whole box of fresh Twinkies that same week(I needed one for a photograph). 

And, in fact, it took me less than 24 hours to eat that whole box, proof that I really shouldn’t keep boxes of dessert in the house.”

One of the snack cakes had brown — not the normal white cream filling inside — and a brown spot on its side to boot, but it was another Twinkie that was down-right creepy. 

Pictures tweeted by Purrington show a shriveled-up grayish oblong thing that has been described by press reports as a dried-out Morel mushroom.

“It was chance that the mummified Twinkie looked like a mushroom,” Lovett said. “This appearance was the effect of a long period of growth by a fungus we identified (Cladosporium) around the sealed Twinkie. The fungus in the second “marred” Twinkie was caught earlier in the act.”

(The fungi that was found is most commonly found in indoor and outdoor molds.)

Lovett and Kasson, an associate professor of forest pathology, theorize air got into the plastic packaging around the cake.

“Twinkies are notorious for lasting a long time and they do include a chemical that prevents fungi from growing,” Lovett said. “Specifically, they contain potassium sorbate, which is a flavorless chemical found in many foods with a long shelf life.”

Closing in on a century

Twinkies were around before even World War II started. 

The cake was invented in 1930 by James Alexander Dewar, a baker for the Continental Baking Co. 

He saw when strawberries were not in season that several machines that made strawberry shortcakes were idle.

Dewar initially came up with a cake with banana cream filling, but when the war started bananas — like many other items — were rationed. 

Banana cream was switched out for vanilla cream, a change that proved very successful with the public.

In 2012, Hostess, which made Twinkies, filed for bankruptcy. 

The company was purchased out of bankruptcy a year later and Twinkies returned to store shelves, both smaller and with a shelf life of 45 days compared with the original 26 days, according to a company history.

One Twinkie is 150 calories and contains 4.5 grams of fat and is made up of 37 different ingredients. 

Besides sugar, salt and flour, there’s thickeners and gums used in both the cream and cake. 

These include agar, locust bean gum, modified corn starch, corn starch, cellulose gum, and xanthan gum.

Twinkies also have emulsifiers, which are food additives used to stabilize processed foodstuff. 

The emulsifiers used in Twinkies are soy lecithin and sodium stearoyl lactylate. The lecithin is found in the cream center to help stabilize the fatty filling. 

Sodium stearoyl separates the air into smaller, even bubbles throughout the cake and give better feeling in the mouth, said What’s in My Food, Twinkie Edition blog.

Getting a look

The researchers investigated the Twinkies like any other field sample, Lovett said. 

They regularly isolate fungi from field-collected tree branches and insect cadavers in the lab. The fungi is then analyzed visually using a microscope, culturally using artificial medium to grow microbes and molecularly using DNA sequences.

To dissect the mummified Twinkie, Lovett and Kasson used a bone marrow biopsy tool to drill through the cake part of the mummified sample. 

And to their surprise, it didn’t smell.

“This may be a sign that our fungus finished eating this Twinkie a long time ago,” Lovett said. 

“Fungi can produce an array of interesting smells and textures, so the overall appearance wasn’t too unsettling to us.” 

According to Kasson fungal DNA from the mummified Twinkie was a 81% match to C. tenuissimum, a blossom blight fungi.

Kasson said until he became involved in the Twinkie project, he probably had not eaten one in a decade and recently bought a box.

“I just ate a Twinkie this morning,” he said.

“I do, however, love Raspberry Zingers, another Hostess Brand snack cake.”

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