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Twinkies: Even nutritionists mourn the ultimate junk food

Paul J. Richards / AFP - Getty Images

A photo of a twin pack of Hostess Twinkies and CupCakes taken January 11, 2012, made by Interstate Brands, which asked courts to liquidate its assets on Nov. 16.

Ok, admit it. With the imminent threat that Hostess Brands could really go out of business, you are seriously considering a run to the grocery store to stock up on Twinkies. And yes, everyone jokes that you can really stock up because they’ll last forever.

The maker of Twinkies, Ho-Hos, the iconic Hostess Cupcakes with exactly seven white loops on the icing and every first-grader’s favorite, Wonder Bread, has asked a court to help it liquidate its assets and close its plants.

It’s a brand that has touched every living generation of Americans. The first Hostess brands hit the shelves in the 1930s and kids have been carrying them in lunch boxes ever since. The memories are so sweet that even top nutritionists defend our right to eat them.

“There is a lot of emotional happiness tied up with something like Twinkies or Sno Balls or Yodels or whatever it is that you like,” says Madelyn Fernstrom, diet and nutrition Editor for TODAY and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “It can bring you back to the innocent days of childhood,” she added.

“I am mourning the death of Twinkies,” says Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist who wrote “What to Eat”, among other books.

 “I would say Twinkies are an enormously important cultural icon. It is the epitome of American processed food, made from ingredients lasting forever, chemically based.”

Every Hostess snack, from Ding Dongs to Sno Balls, has its own fierce fan base, but Twinkies rise above them all. The sponge-cake fingers filled with a cream-like ingredient gave rise to the Twinkie Defense, the Twinkie Diet and a book about Twinkies that sources their 39 ingredients – many of them not normally recognized as food.

 “The real food in there is pretty hard to find,” said Nestle, who once sat down with writer Steve Ettlinger  to eat a Twinkie and chat about how it’s evolved.

Ettlinger tracked down the ingredients in Twinkies for his book, ”Twinkie, Deconstructed”.  “I was so amazed that these little delicate snack cakes were part of an industrial chemical complex. I call it the Twinkie Nexus," Ettlinger said.

More than anything, Twinkies symbolize junk food to Americans -- the junk food that is at least partly blamed for helping make more than 60 percent of us overweight or obese and for driving epidemic rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

And there’s an even darker side to Twinkies.  In 1979, Dan White invoked what became widely known as the “Twinkie defense”. The former city district official was on trial for killing San Francisco mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk when his lawyer brought a psychiatrist to the stand who testified that White was clinically depressed, marked by a junk food binge. White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.

But can Twinkies alter your brain? Emmanuel Pothos of Tufts University in Boston says there is a lot of evidence that they can.

Paul J. Richards / AFP - Getty Images

)A view of a box of 10 Hostess Twinkies is seen in this photo taken January 11, 2012. Hostess Brands, the baker of Twinkie cakes and other iconic American foods announced November 16, 2012 that it is going out of business, closing plants, laying off its 18,500 workers and putting its brands up for sale.

He studies the hedonic aspects of eating. “That’s eating just because we like to eat, because we like the taste,” says Pothos, an associate professor of Molecular Physiology & Pharmacology. Sweet, fat-laden processed foods such as Twinkies act on the brain just like addictive drugs do, he’s found.

“The brain is affected significantly by junk food,” Pothos says.

Tasty, high-energy foods affect the message-carrying chemical dopamine, a key brain neurotransmitter. Just as with heroin or cocaine, it gradually takes more and more tasty food to get the same pleasure, Pothos has found. “Neurotransmitters are released less and less and therefore more and more high-energy food, junk food, is needed to get the same neurotransmitter effect,” he said.

“That’s a defect an individual could try to overcome for life and they would never actually be able to. So they compensate by overeating.” And, he adds, it can result in feelings of depression.

Worse, it appears that the effect can actually be passed from one generation to the next, Pothos and other researchers are finding. “Everybody is bewildered right now. It appears that within one or two generations, exposure to junk food can leave a permanent trait on our brains, a permanent change that is actually passed on to our offspring,” he said. “They will pass it, amplified, to the next generation.”

Fernstrom isn’t convinced Twinkies are evil. “Something I always liked about Twinkies and Sno Balls is that there are two in a pack. It is the perfect sharing item,” she said. ”This is one thing that hasn’t been supersized. They seem puny in comparison to the size of cookies and other treats you see now."

Nestle mentions Mark Haub, a professor of nutrition at Kansas State University who went on a "convenience store" diet in 2010 consisting mainly of Twinkies, Oreos and chips and lost 27 pounds in two months. “You can eat anything and lose weight if you don’t eat too much of it,” Nestle says.

As for the legend that Twinkies will last forever, the myth-busting website, snopes.com, says it's not entirely true. According to Snopes, Twinkies do last longer than many other baked goods because they contain no dairy products, but they are only formulated to stay fresh for 25 days.

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