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Death to Twinkie

No pity party here. My motto: As goes junk food, so goes our national health.

posted by Suzanne Gerber, November 26, 2012 More by this author

Twinkies, like other junk food, contributes to heart disease.

Suzanne Gerber is the editor of the Living & Learning channel for Next Avenue. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.


Twinkies, like other junk food, contributes to heart disease.
Larry D. Moore/Creative Commons 2.0
No sooner had one major national battle been settled than another huge clash broke out among the American people. I am not referring to the fiscal cliff. I am talking about the most hotly debated issue in the country today: Whether the demise of Hostess brands is an event of tragic proportions or whether it’s something that the company had coming and a sign that we’re finally waking up to healthier eating.
 
Ding Dongs, the Ho Ho’s Dead
 
It’s almost moot to discuss what undid the stalwart snack-food brand, which is exactly as old as my mother (82). Even as the company was floundering in recent years, it still managed to pull down $2.5 billion in annual revenue. That’s a whole lot of Ho Hos.
 
Management blames out-of-control union costs; labor points to poor management decisions. Either way, the net result was the shuttering of 33 plants and the firing of 18,000 workers. And the loss, to untold citizens, of their favorite snack foods.
 
Call me un-American, but I don’t feel bad about this. (Well, I do for 18,000 people.) Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a food Nazi. I truly understand that emotions guide our eating choices far more powerfully than “good sense” and logic. I’m a staunch defender of personal and civil liberties. And I appreciate how fondly we recollect childhood snacks, many of which involve Wonder Bread, Snowballs and, yes, Twinkies.
 
I have a friend who used to say the fifth food group was Little Debbies. We worked together for years, and every day this thin guy would cap his lunch off with a packet of his favorite snack food (the “Debster”). It made him really, really happy, and I knew better than to broach a conversation about the role of trans fats in heart disease.

Over the past few decades, the government and every major health organization has taken direct aim at our nation’s obesity problem. And for good reason. In the 1960s, 13 percent of Americans were considered obese; today that number is hovering around 34 percent — it’s almost tripled.
 
There are many factors in that treacherous increase, having to do with our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, supersized portions, the consequences of ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup (cheaper and thus more abundant packaged food, diminished brain function) and, of course, the spike in the consumption of trans fats. 

(MORE: Follow These Guidelines for Healthy Eating)
 
A Brief History of Trans Fats
 
Until the early 20th century, the fats we used in food preparation came from natural sources, both plant and animal — no laboratory tinkering. But with the discovery in 1902 of a way to extend a product’s shelf life by changing its molecular structure (hydrogenating) came a whole new (rogue) wave of fractured foods.
 
Crisco was the first trans fat product (1911). Then, thanks to butter rationing during World War II, Americans took up margarine with a vengeance (and swallowed a bill of goods that it was better for them than butter). In 1957 — the peak year of the baby boom, incidentally — the American Heart Association launched a campaign to get Americans to reduce dietary fats, particularly the saturated fats found in animal products (meat and dairy), because of its link to heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans.
 
In the ’80s there was a move away from saturated fats toward plant-based trans fats, because their sins weren’t known. It wasn’t until the ’90s that extensive research established the link between trans fats and increased (“bad”) LDL cholesterol, heart disease and even diabetes.

In 2006, the government passed a law that required packaged foods to list on their nutritional labels the amount of trans fats — and that was the year that many brands, including Hostess, changed their recipes and removed the trans fats (or reduced them to an amout so negligible that they didn't have to be counted). Even so, the ridiculously high amount of sugar (which gets stored in the body as fat) is itself a serious health hazard.
 
Old Dogs, New Tricks
 
And yet, old habits die hard, and we love what we love. Food is what we turn to for comfort and solace. And for everyday metaphors: We come together with others by breaking bread with them. The ultimate neat trick is having your cake and eating it, too. Someone is as cute as a cupcake. The joys of junk food are imprinted in our psyches and our DNA.
 
Heart disease is our enemy. It causes 1 of every 4 American deaths, and coronary heart disease costs us $108.9 billion each year. Obviously, we can’t blame one junk-food company for this. (Though apparently we can sue fast-food chains for making us fat.)
 
What really, obviously, needs to happen is that each of us has to become conscious of what we eat, what drives us to eat what we do, and to decide if the risks of poor choices are worth the potential consequences. For some people that answer will be yes. (I once told my ex that if he’d quit smoking and cut back on alcohol, saturated fat and fried foods, he’d live longer. He replied: “No I wouldn’t. It would only seem longer.”)
 
Unlike a certain big-city mayor, I don’t believe we can or should legislate health eating choices. But we can and should educate people, support them in making smart choices (with subsidized healthy-food programs for the indigent and in schools). Culturally it’s another matter. That’s on us: to buck what’s popular or shoved down our throats (literally and figuratively) in advertisements and supermarkets. To a very large degree, our health is in our hands.
 
But there’s no reason to, or chance of, giving up snacks and desserts wholesale. (That’s un-American.) We’re just talking about finding healthier options: replacing junk food with fruits and other natural foods, and finding healthier dessert brands.
 
As for the Twinkie defense: May it rest in peace.
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