The Shelf Life of a Vintage Twinkie

Michele Norris speaks with Roger Bennatti, a recently retired science teacher at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Me., about a food preservation experiment he began 30 years ago. He and students set out to determine the shelf life of a Hostess Twinkie.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In the world of store-bought desserts, Hostess Twinkies are in a world unto themselves. The cream-filled sponge cakes have had their share of fame. They were once the subject of a criminal defense, and Twinkies were included in the US Millennium Time Capsule representing an object of `enduring American symbolism.' Well, a science teacher at the Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Maine, has discovered just how enduring Twinkies can be. Roger Bennatti wanted to find out just how long a Twinkie would really last, so he left one sitting on his blackboard for three decades.

Mr. ROGER BENNATTI (Science Teacher, George Stevens Academy): Well, it was about 31 years ago, and I was teaching a class in chemistry. And we happened to be discussing food additives and different chemicals that would be placed in foods for various reasons, and we were discussing food preservatives. And a student happened to ask me, `How long would a Twinkie last?' And my answer was, `Well, I have no idea, but let's do an experiment.' So I sent a student down to the general store, which was next door to our school, and he picked up a package of two Twinkies. He brought it up to the classroom. I unwrapped the Twinkies, and I immediately ate one. And I simply placed the second Twinkie on top of the blackboard, and we began our experiment.

NORRIS: So the Twinkie--it's not even in the original packaging. It's...

Mr. BENNATTI: Oh, no, no. It was unwrapped immediately.

NORRIS: ...open to the air and the oxygen.

Mr. BENNATTI: And the dust and the chalk dust, and God knows what else was in the chemistry room.

NORRIS: Well, what's it look like?

Mr. BENNATTI: Well, it's rather dusty. It's--I must admit, in the past year, because of its fame, it's been sort of taken out and shown more in the past year than in the previous 30 years. So it's begun to sort of exfoliate a little bit. It's starting to flake off just a tad. But it's sort of an off-yellow, dusty--the bottom, you know, appears to be a little, you know, perhaps moldy, but just a little bit of the bottom of it.

NORRIS: So as a man of science, can you explain this, why it hasn't--why it's not covered with fuzzy green mold...

Mr. BENNATTI: No, I...

NORRIS: ...after all these years?

Mr. BENNATTI: ...think its primary thing--I think it did tend to dry out. I think desiccation, you know, is--was its saving grace. It's rather dry and brittle now and--because it's been kept, I think, dry, along with the preservatives, which I'm sure, you know, the Hostess Company aren't particularly proud of. It's lasted quite some time.

NORRIS: Well, we should actually say that the Hostess Company says that Twinkies are made of milk and sugar and flour, and just like anything else, they're going to go bad after an amount of time.

Mr. BENNATTI: Right. And I think it just happened to simply become quite dry and such. And I'm not sure I'd try to eat it right now. I don't think I'd want to risk it.

NORRIS: I don't think that'd be a good idea.

Mr. BENNATTI: No.

NORRIS: Well, with that carbon-dated Twinkie in your classroom...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: ...over all these years, I'm wondering if kids at school are still bringing these in their lunch box or if this is sort of a no-Twinkie zone there at Stevens Academy.

Mr. BENNATTI: Well, no. I mean, it's one of those things where, you know, I don't think this has caused anyone to actually fear the Twinkie. I mean, they juts sort of marvel at the miracle of engineering that is the Twinkie.

NORRIS: Now, you know, beyond just being something that you could sort of poke fun at and a conversation piece in your classroom, is there some enduring lesson in this experiment?

Mr. BENNATTI: (Laughs) An enduring lesson? Well, the--I mean, it's just like in any experiment, you know. Like, many times the best experiment is one when you have no idea what the outcome is going to be, and this was definitely that kind of an experiment.

NORRIS: Do you have other food items in your classroom...

Mr. BENNATTI: Well, I'm...

NORRIS: ...that students are leaving out? Are there oranges or Little Debbie cakes or...

Mr. BENNATTI: ...(unintelligible) have in the classroom is a Fig Newton. The Fig Newton was, however, dated with a Magic Marker on it, so we know the Fig Newton is now about 15 years old. But kids were trying to bring in a whole bunch of foodstuffs into my classroom to be stored, and I just point out this is not going to be the `decay hall of fame.' So all we had was a Twinkie and a Fig Newton.

NORRIS: Mr. Bennatti, thanks so much for talking to us.

Mr. BENNATTI: Well, thank you very much.

NORRIS: Roger Bennatti is a teacher at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Maine.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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