Never change, Twinkies: Why Hostess should keep making unhealthy snacks

This will never be more than a nuclear sugar bomb. (Matt York/AP)

This will never be more than a nuclear sugar bomb. (Matt York/AP)

Twinkies, as you may have noticed in your corner store, are back. After emerging from bankruptcy free of pesky unions and crushing debt, parent company Hostess is pushing its standard brands into thousands more locations, accompanied by a high-profile  ad campaign that promises the "sweetest comeback in the history of ever."

The new management, though, is contemplating messing with its formula in order to keep up with a more body-conscious America--sometimes cited as a reason why the company got in financial trouble in the first place. Or at least, that's what private equity mogul C. Dean Metropoulos is hinting. "In coming months, he said, Hostess will also start developing healthier products," the Wall Street Journal reported. "Mr. Metropoulos said they could include whole grains, come in the form of lower-calorie snack packs, be gluten-free or contain stevia, a natural sugar substitute."

But is it really possible to reform a Twinkie-like dessert, without turning people off completely? Evidence suggests it's not usually worth the effort--or the cost.

Take whole grains. Regular whole grains have unsaturated fats, which are unstable, so it would take more chemical additives to create the kind of shelf life that people expect in a snack cake. Alternatively, you could use a ConAgra product called Ultragrain, a white-looking flour that's technically a whole grain. But it'll cost about 30 percent more, and won't come with significant health benefits if it retains the same amount of sugar and fat--as a Harvard study recently found that most "whole grain"-labeled foods actually do.

The thing is, whole grains themselves don't make food that much better for you, says University of Minnesota food scientist Joanne Slavin. Most of the research is epidemiological, meaning we know that people who eat whole grains are healthier, but we're not sure the relationship is causal.

"In nutrition, whenever we say something's good, then we kind of overdo it," Slavin says. "If you had a whole grain Hostess Twinkie, the calories in it would be the same." The marketing has gotten out of control, she says--though "whole grain" product launches have increased exponentially in recent years, America has continued to get more obese.

The same goes for other ingredients, like sugar and fat. Sugar substitutes like Splenda don't usually work well for baking, and substituting oils for butter in order to reduce cholesterol just means you're dealing with saturated fat instead. "They can do it , but later, it's like, why did we do that?" Slavin says. "It's not going to increase nutrition."

In fact, it may be better overall if people think of processed desserts as just that: unhealthy snacks that you should avoid.

"I think there's some tweaking you could do on your Twinkie to make it healthier, but at the end of the day it's still a dessert. People have to accept it for what it is," Slavin says. "I just don't think whole grains are ever going to take over, and they probably shouldn't. There's not going to be a difference in health outcomes. The fact that people think a whole grain cookie is healthy, that's bad, put it down. It gives people a reason to eat more of stuff that they shouldn't."

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