Eating a metaphore

LA Times carries an article about the beloved Twinkie. The Twinkie plant that used to smell wonderful as traffic passed, but has been replaced by Nordstrom and Nieman Marcus and condos on top floors, forced to move to Maine, and now only assembled in the US. Ouch!

Although eight of the ingredients in the beloved little snack cake come from domestic corn and three from soybeans, there are others — including thiamine mononitrate — that come from petroleum. Chinese petroleum. Chinese refineries and Chinese factories. And there are other unexpected ingredients that are much harder to trace. So much for the great “All-American” snack food.

When you bite into a Twinkie, you are chewing on an international nexus of suppliers. Most of our processed foods — salad dressing, ice cream, meal-replacement drinks — are processed with foreign additives: essential ones, like B vitamins for fortifying flour and the preservative sorbic acid, as well as Malaysian or Indonesian palm oil products, European wheat gluten, Peruvian colorants, Chadian gums and Swiss niacin, made from Swiss water, Swiss air (nitrogen) and North Atlantic or Middle Eastern oil. It’s a nice contrast to recall that Champagne comes only from Champagne, France.

Like many other industries, food additives have been off-shored. No major domestic vitamin or sorbic acid manufacturers remain in the U.S. Our last vitamin C plant closed in 2005 — in fact, it closed as I was speaking to an employee about a tour — and most of our artificial colors and flavors come from abroad as well. Our chemical industry is rapidly dismantling its expensive domestic plants and either forming joint ventures with Chinese companies or simply buying chemicals from them. This leads to lower food and pharmaceutical prices, but perhaps at the cost of quality control.

How can you have quality control when you don’t even know where the ingredient is coming from? During my Twinkie research, I was particularly surprised that many American food additive “manufacturers” buy chemicals, especially vitamins, from distributors and do not know, or don’t ask, where they come from. The distributors usually sing the same song, as they often buy from importers, and the importers buy from exporters who — no surprise — are often not able or willing to identify all of their sources.

Even purses run $500 – 1500 at the new mall.

Update: The above post is a real story. The transfigured mall was just recently opened, although the condos on top are not finished yet. They are sold out, however. The twinkie factory moved to a newer plant in Maine, where less rent is required.

Spelling was corrected.

The economics of Twinkie production can be found here care of Greg Mankiw, Chapter 13, Harcourt Brace and Co., 1998.