What deep-fried Twinkies tell us about Wal-Mart’s new food lab

The science of how certain foods gratifies us is getting attention by retailers, and that might not be a good thing.

Mary Altaffer/AP
Wayne Rosenbaum, president of Papaya King hot dog and tropical drinks store, spreads chocolate sauce on a freshly deep-fried Twinkie at the flagship store in New York.

It used to be that you could regret eating deep-fried Twinkies just a few times a year, whenever you went to a fair. Now, you can regret eating them every day.

On Friday, Hostess unveiled a pre-battered, partially fried version of the treat that can be frozen for baking at home with a few minutes in the toaster oven or frying pan, reported the Associated Press. The snack, which comes with vanilla or chocolate cream, is the product of a yearlong collaboration with Wal-Mart, and for the first three months, the latter will have exclusive rights to its distribution.

Hostess has debuted a number of products for the health-conscious recently, in line with a growing trend among consumers. But with nine grams of fat and 220 calories, the deep-fried Twinkie – like the carnivals and boardwalks where they remain a staple – is being branded more as a throwback to an earlier time when Americans thought less about their waistlines than about the passions of their palettes.

"It has a retro cool factor," said Ellen Copaken, vice president of marketing at Hostess. "And it's fun."

The deep-fried Twinkie is part of a push by Wal-Mart to collaborate with food suppliers on new products themselves – or new twists on old products. In June, the company opened a new food-innovation laboratory at its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters for that purpose.

Michael Hicks, a distinguished professor of economics at Ball State University, who has studied the impact of Wal-Mart on local economies, tells The Christian Science Monitor that the lab would likely try to appeal to customers already in Wal-Mart stores.

“They are also worried about keeping costs low, which probably means that they are experimenting not only with taste, but packaging and presentation,” he says.

In a June interview with Talk Business and Politics, Charles Redfield, the head of Wal-Mart’s US food division, suggested that the new lab was a way of keeping down promotional costs.

“On our own turf, we can go deep down into the product ingredients and better control the process of dead net cost [when vendor rebates are subtracted from the price up front],” he said, “and the result of that is that we can become better food experts.... It’s an education facility for us and our suppliers.”

The site is part kitchen, part market-research incubator, where the company surveys customers and employees on the qualities of a food or drink. And with Wal-Mart continuing its reign as the nation’s largest food retailer, what goes on in the lab may have significant implications for Americans’ health.

Robert Lawrence, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and founding director of the Center for a Livable Future, says the lab is also one of several that trace their origin to universities and corporations.

“There are a few university-based food labs looking at promoting nutritional quality, then there are a whole raft of food labs doing the opposite, trying to get us to succumb to even more highly processed food,” he tells the Monitor. “Wal-Mart falls, I think, in that last category.”

Many of those labs are spending lots of time on the science of gratification. Dr. Lawrence recalls being amazed by a presentation at a Google food lab from one group of scientists who described fitting taste-testers with microphones attached to the outside of their cheeks as they sampled new varieties of chips, to measure how different levels of crunchiness corresponded to consumers’ satisfaction.

Food retailers, he said, “all have well-trained food scientists that understand things about taste and gratification and so forth that make it a big challenge for public health community to steer people toward a better diet.”

“From a public health perspective, it’s very worrisome if someone as powerful as Wal-Mart’s grocery business is making an even more appealing snack food.”

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