What’s In Those Snacks and How Are They Made?

March 10, 2007

Last weekend as part of my half-baked attempt to diet, I divided up a big bag of potato chips into several smaller bags, each containing one serving (about 15 chips). I stuck to eating one bag a day until… Wednesday, when my plan went to heck and I scarfed down four bags in an afternoon.

In addition, I sadly admit I’ve been eating Cheetos during my commute home. The salty cheese powder might explain the ever-worsening stains on my formerly-white MacBook.

Which got me thinking: How are Cheetos made? Do they grow on trees? In addition, there’s quite a number of mysterious, mass-produced foods whose origins (at least to me) are unclear and even a tad suspicious. I thought I’d brainstorm some fantasy theories based on my limited knowledge of food production, and then do some research as what they’re made of and how they came to be.

1. Cheetos.

My Guess: A huge vat of mashed corn meal. At the bottom is an thin tube where little dribbles of corn emerge, and dropped into a fryer containing hot oil. Still warm, they move to a conveyor belt where they’re sprayed with orange cheese powder and MSG.

Truth: Wikipedia says “extruded corn meal,” baked in ovens. The Crunchy Cheetos are fried. Unclear how the cheese powder is added.

2. Twinkies.

My Guess: This is a basic cake pumped up with oil and preservatives. When nearly done, a two-pronged device stabs them from beneath, and injects the sweetened filling which is essentially sweetened lard, vanilla, and soap flakes.

Truth: Wikipedia says Continental Foods has never revealed exactly how Twinkies are made. But the bottoms are brown, so it’s a safe guess they’re baked. Wikipedia quotes the Washington Post saying they’re baked for ten minutes, the cream filling is injected through three holes.

If you really want to know more, there’s a new book called Twinkie, Deconstructed – which sheds some light on the ingredients of the “cream filling.” It’s mostly shortening (think Crisco), polysorbate 60 (various oils), cellulose gum, and artificial vanillin. The result is something creamy and buttery with no natural ingredients.

3. Slim Jims

My Guess: These are leftover hot-dogs that are salted, peppered, shredded, and dehydrated in the sun. They’re mixed with soap, lard, and run through a licorice machine. Okay, I’m kidding. I have no idea, and I don’t want to know. I’m thinking they’re a way to sell all the meat industry scraps that aren’t good enough for sausage, head cheese, or spam.

Truth: Wikipedia has some scary stuff about machine-separated chicken, while a Google search lead me to high fat content (explaining the slippery taste), and an urban legend about cow hair. I can’t handle the truth so I stopped looking.

4. Marshmallows

My Guess: Corn syrup and gelatin, mixed to add air, and finally shot out of a tube.

Truth: Wikipedia says, sugar syrup, beaten egg whites, gelatin, water, arabic gum. There was a traditional extract from an herb called the marshmallow plant. They are extruded as soft cylinders, cut in sections and rolled in cornstarch and sugar.

5. Peeps

My Guess: Marshmallows are the basis. Judging by the shape, I think they’re just splurted out of a tube. The final touch is a spraying with the color frosting that also solidifies the exterior.

Truth: Wikipedia says marshmallow, sugar, gelatin, and carnauba (which I think is wax, right?)

6. Altoids

My Guess: These are almost certainly sugar with mint oil, rolled into a long cylinder and cut into pieces while still moist.

Truth: Wikipedia confirms sugar and mint, but add arabic gum and gelatin. Hey wait, aren’t those the same ingredients as marshmallows?

7. Shrimp Chips

My Guess: Uh… tapioca starch is mixed with shrimp flavor, food coloring, and deep fried.

Truth: Wikipedia says I was pretty close: they’re deep fried crackers made of tapioca or potato flour, flavored with fish, prawns, or vegetables.

8. Cheese food: Velveeta, Cheez Whiz

My Guess: Oil, corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, plastic, MSG, and the aforementioned Cheeto cheese powder.

Truth: Wikipedia says it’s partly real cheese – leftover cheese pieces that can’t be sold as real cheese – with a lot of “additional ingredients” like emulsifiers and stabilizing agents like xanthan gum to get it back to resembling cheese. I guess “processed cheese foods” are the cheese equivalent of sausage. Velveeta has a lot of “whey.”

9. Bacon bits

My Guess: Most certainly not real bacon, these are soy and bran flakes with artificial bacon flavor. Basically Grape Nuts and All-Bran but with essence of meat.

Truth:Textured vegetable protien“: soy flour, caramel color, red 3, and yellow 6, wheat-gluten protein, and autolyzed yeast – and smoky bacon flavor.

10. Marmite

My Guess: I have a jar of this stuff because it’s loaded with B vitamins. Unfortunately, it tastes like soy sauce, grease, and stale beer – even when lightly added to a saltine coated with butter. I read somewhere that Marmite a by product of beer brewing. I think it doubles as shoe polish in a fix.

Truth: Wikipedia says it’s a by product of beer brewing – but this seems limited to the yeast extract. Additional ingredients are salt, vegetable extract, vitamins, and spices. The B vitamins are added during manufacture. Which makes me wonder – why eat the yeast?

Anyhow, all of this food research makes me realize that much time is spent creating foods from “by products” of other. One person’s trash is another’s midnight snack.

I’m thinking a new snack food is possible: The Chikin Cheez Stik: leftover cheese, separated chicken parts, yeast extract, high fructose corn syrup, and various emulsifiers, deep-fried and covered in smoky bacon flavor. Coming soon to a convenience store near you.


  1. engtech says:

    I always thought Twinkis begat themselves through some paradox in the space time continuum?

    You eat a Twinki, it goes through your digestive system and ends up in some kind of land fill, where it eventually reconstitutes itself. A hostile alien race that has taken over the earth sends them back through time as a declaration of war.

    That’s why they have such a long shelf life.

    *goes back to watching Dr. Who*

  2. webomatica says:

    heh… the health section? I didn’t know digg had one :)

    Eng i’m sure the socks that disappear in the dryer are somehow involved.

  3. Char says:

    OMG Jason – I may never eat most of those foods again! I remember the smell of Marmite as a kid. My parents used to put it on toast in the morning and I couldn’t bear the smell. I saw it on the shelf at World Market today and almost bought my Mom a jar.

    And Slim Jims – ewwww. Keep posting facts like these and we’ll all be on an organic, whole foods diet before you know it.

    Loved it!!!

  4. webomatica says:

    Hi Char I think only item of these foods that I still eat are the Cheetos, Altoids, and the shrimp chips. My jar of marmite is still about 90% full. Slim Jims just scare me!

  5. Zigire says:

    The only thing I eat there is MARMITE… mm hmm

    I was fed Marmite sandwiches as a child (cut into squares of course) and I can’t have toast without Marmite…

  6. webomatica says:

    Zigre, ah yes you are the mystical Marmite eaters. Here in America they aren’t very common at all! The obvious theory is that one has to eat Marmite from childhood to really like it.

  7. Zigire says:

    What about Bovril?

    A lovely hot drink for a winters day when you’re stood on the football(soccer) terraces.. It’s suprisingly tasty!

  8. webomatica says:

    Bovril? Never heard of it. This calls for some research. I have tried some unusual beverages in my quest for bottle caps. I think a strange one I am curious about is Irn Bru

  9. Zigire says:

    Irn Bru is a bit odd… big in Scotland

    Not sure how to describe the taste of it to be honest. They do have interesting tv ads

  10. webomatica says:

    After reading about Bovril, I think I can find some at a specialty store nearby (where I got the Marmite). I’ll give Bovril a try and get back to you :)

  11. webomatica says:

    Zigre – so I tried some hot Bovril. Peculiar. To me, it tastes like soup broth (with a little onion) with a slight hint of that Marmite flavor. I certainly prefer it to the Marmite but that’s not saying much.

    I think I’ll do a more extensive post on these British foods in the future…

  12. Tanya Walker says:

    I, myself, am addicted to Cheetos! So, nothing bad can be said there…. But on another note…. I will NEVER eat another Slim Jim… OR A TWINKIE! OMG Lard is not something that I want to consume in large amounts! Ewwww…

  13. Ashley Jackson says: