Even when many of us are consistently falling asleep over our laptops at 3 p.m., there are only so many cups of coffee or cans of cola a person can drink in a day.
When we’re feeling infinitely more fatigued, foods that promise instant pep are more tempting than ever. An increasing number of food manufacturers are infusing additional caffeine into everyday products like candy, mint, gum and energy bars. As the number of edible energy-boosting products grows, many consumers wonder whether adding another caffeine delivery system to their diet is a good idea. As with so many other parts of the food world, the answer is a resounding: It depends.
An efficiency booster for the modern age
In Michael Pollan’s book, “Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World,” he makes the case that the fast pace of modern life — everything from pulling all-nighters at school to working the night shift — would be impossible without the boost of caffeine. He points to studies showing that mental performance and athletic performance are improved by caffeine intake, and he quotes Johns Hopkins researcher Roland Griffiths, who pooh-poohed naysayers by saying, “If you have a steady supply of something, you can afford it and it’s not interfering with your life, there’s nothing wrong with being addicted.”
Ted Kallmyer is the editor of CaffeineInformer.com, a website about caffeine, caffeine usage and caffeine levels in consumer products. About 15 years ago, he began to notice caffeine-added foods hitting the market. “It was around the time that non-coffee energy drinks were gaining in popularity. Consumer demand for caffeine was growing, and manufacturers saw a potential market segment of people who didn’t like coffee or tea but still wanted the benefits that caffeine offered,” Kallmyer said.
“Current guidelines are for adults to consume no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine each day.”
It’s estimated that 87% of Americans regularly consume some form of caffeine, increasingly through the food they eat. “The popularity of what’s called ‘functional foods’ has grown during the pandemic,” Maeve Webster, president of food industry consultancy Menu Matters, told HuffPost. “Consumers are looking to food and beverages to address health concerns and to provide them with benefits like immunity support, cognitive ability or energy.”
She notes that caffeine has some definite benefits as a food add-in. “There’s growing evidence that it helps with cognitive health, fat-burning, gut health, which in turn is increasingly tied to immunity strength and depression ― a particularly pandemic-driven issue,” she added.
Of course, there’s a dark side, because there’s always a dark side
Whether you’re sipping or chewing your caffeine, experts suggest doing so with caution and awareness. It’s a central nervous system stimulant, which is great for a boost, but can lead to over-stimulation. If you’re feeling more anxious or having trouble sleeping, start looking at the amount of caffeine you’re consuming in a day.
“Caffeine at its best can make you feel alert and awake, and it can give you a quick-acting pick-me-up,” registered dietitian nutritionist Amanda Frankeny told HuffPost. “In the worst-case scenario, if you are sensitive to it or drink too much, it brings on nausea, anxiety, jitters, insomnia, rapid heartbeat, headaches, depression and temporary high blood pressure.” She points out that current guidelines are for adults to consume no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine each day.
“Caffeine has many apparent benefits, but just like any drug, it has side effects and a darker side, which is greatly influenced by a person’s genetic makeup and habitual use,” Kallmyer said. “Caffeine addiction is a real thing and anyone who consumes caffeine on a daily basis is addicted on some level. The human body quickly becomes tolerant of the caffeine molecule, so people have a tendency to consume more to compensate. When caffeine levels get into the 600 mg range or higher, the health benefits diminish and your consumption may interfere with sleep. If you do consume caffeine daily, keep your consumption moderate and consistent.”
Meet some makers
If you haven’t noticed a caffeine-infused product at your grocery store, you probably will very soon. Here are some of the makers to look for.
A veteran of Kraft and Pepsi, Adam Deremo, Awake’s founder and CEO, grew interested in making food functional and began thinking about people’s relationship to caffeine. “Many people love the boost it gives them, but many don’t like the bitterness,” he told HuffPost. “We set out to create a food-form energy booster that tasted great.” The product is created using a food technology called microencapsulation, which coats caffeine extract in vegetable oil, reducing the caffeine’s bitterness but keeping the chocolate’s creamy texture. Each bar contains 110 mg of caffeine, compared with the 85 mg in a standard cup of brewed coffee.
“Texture is so important in a chocolate product, because if you mishandle it, you’ll take away the magic,” he said. In addition to taste, his product also offers a convenience factor. “Coffee gets cold, energy drinks get warm, but our chocolate is always at the right temperature. Plus, you can’t spill it on your computer keyboard.” (We feel seen here.)
Johnny Fayad began his career as a caffeinated snack bar maker when he and his partner, Ali Kothari, were students at Northeastern University in Boston. “We saw our peers drinking Red Bull and taking caffeine pills, and we didn’t want to do that,” he said. “We wanted to develop a naturally caffeinated snack with ingredients you’d find in a pantry, not a laboratory.” They cooked up bars and then went to the university library at 2 a.m., selling to students who were pulling all-nighters. “All of our products either have a cup of coffee (80 mg of caffeine) or a shot of espresso (65 mg of caffeine) in each one, and always coming from organic coffee,” Fayad said.
Caffeine, Fayad said, works best when it’s balanced with real food. “Our products are made with ingredients to help you stabilize that caffeine, like dates, oats and nut butter,” he said. Eat Your Coffee was a popular choice for office snack pantries, so took a hit during the pandemic while many have been temporarily shuttered, but the company has been seeing success with the shift to people buying online, including a lot of gifting and donations to first responders and health workers who need to stay awake and nourished.
This candy bar made with coffee instead of chocolate began as one of the best-kept secrets in the Kansas City area, only recently moving to multi-city distribution and online sales. “I make the bars in small batches, using sugar, cocoa butter, fair or direct trade coffee and pink Himalayan salt,” founder Michael Golden told HuffPost. Each 3-ounce bar has about 150 mg of caffeine.
If you find a favorite bar (flavors are Straight Black, With Milk and With Cinnamon), you may want to order right away because they do sell out, and for a distinct reason. “Inventory stays low to ensure bars stay fresh,” Golden said. “It’s a low-tech process that takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it to get that intense coffee flavor.” Of his artisanal passion project, Golden said: “To say I’m very small is to overstate it.”
Pick your food, pick your mood
In the future, will you increasingly reach for a caffeinated snack instead of cola or coffee? For Webster, it’s highly likely, especially in these times. “I actually think the pandemic is helping drive the idea of foods that give you a quick burst of caffeinated energy,” she said. “Even if you’re working from home, you need to be alert — and sometimes more alert — given the new and often greater distractions from kids schooling at home to everyday tasks that can distract from work.”
“I think we’ll also see foods featuring alternative caffeine sources with increasing regularity, with products that pair caffeine benefits with other functional benefits from those new ingredients,” Webster said. “Of course, the degree to which caffeine is sourced from those ingredients will vary, and the caffeine impact may start to be parsed out from intense energy to a more mellow mood.”