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