Hidden Buzz: 5 Secret Caffeine Foods

Like the old candy ad, sometimes something good can come from a collision of two completely unrelated things.

Take beef jerky and energy drinks. Perhaps you’d eat them together, but you’d definitely not set out to combine them on purpose — unless you were Brian Levin and his buddies.

On a ski trip, this group enjoyed a long, hard night of energy-drink-cocktail-fueled libation, then settled in while a winter storm raged outside. The next morning they awoke, loaded up their gear and headed out to the mountain. Amongst their gear was an open bag of peppered beef jerky, which had been drenched in some of the energy drink that had carelessly spilled the night before.

“My friends and I were too hung over to throw the ruined jerky out,” Levin said, “and it was delicious.” The jerky had retained its original flavor, but had been made more tender by the accident. By the time they reached the bottom of the mountain they realized they'd been given an extra boost — the jerky had taken on some of the pep of the energy drink. And that's how Perky Jerky, an energized beef jerky, was born.

“It’s been five years now,” Levin, “chairman of the herd” of Perky Jerky, added. “We’re targeting people with active lifestyles — troops, truckers or people who sit in a cockpit or car and need energy, triatheletes. The funny thing is that this appeals to women with kids. It’s low-calorie, low-fat, low-carb and gives you energy.”

Plenty of supercharged snacks available

Perky Jerky is just one of many energized snacks that are gradually taking the place of coffee in some consumers’ hearts.

Instead of reaching for a cup of Joe to combat the four o’clock blahs, we can snack on supercharged beef jerky, cereal bars, lollipops, popcorn or even jelly beans.

And because the caffeine ingested from food is absorbed differently from coffee or even an energy drink like Red Bull, the lift you get from these caffeinated foods is smoother and, in some cases, lasts longer.

“It’s a little crazy, but the protein with the caffeine gives you more of a smooth ride,” Levin explains about his brand of peppered beef jerky that is infused with guarana, a fruit that is about the same size as a coffee bean but contains about twice as much caffeine.

The Octain Brain Bar is another energy-packed option that loads caffeine from the kola nut with ginko biloba, lecithin and nutriose dietary fiber for long-lasting stimulation. BioFuel caffeine-infused popcorn, which was created by two exhausted and time-taxed parents of young children, combines caffeine with complex carbohydrates and fiber for its staying power. 

With caffeine-infused candies, like ThinkGeek’s caffeinated fruity or maple-bacon-flavored lollipops — (yes, believe it) — the caffeine is absorbed faster, through the mouth, instead of through the stomach, because, well, when you need a kick in the pants, you need it now. Each pop carries as much caffeine as you’d ingest from an energy drink or two cups of coffee.

Some of these candies, like Jelly Belly’s Extreme Sport Beans with caffeine, electrolytes and vitamins, are marketed to endurance athletes as an alternative to sport goo or nuggets that an athlete would ingest while working out or competing to enhance their performance.

How much caffeine is too much?

But with all these revved-up treats at our disposal, are we bound to become a nation of caffeine junkies?

Liz Applegate, director of sports nutrition at University of California-Davis, thinks not.

“If you look at the typical caffeine intake, which is 200 to 300 milligrams a day, or three to four cups of coffee, people are now finding other ways to get their caffeine,” Applegate explained. “They are still seeking it out in soda, energy drinks or other things. There are products out there that are strictly marketed to get energized in the afternoon.”

Applegate did say a measure of caution is warranted. While a person can feel more energized and alert with just half a cup of coffee (or 30 to 50 milligrams of caffeine), too much of a good thing can be damaging, she said.

Because of energy drinks in particular, “some teenagers are becoming heavy users,” Applegate said. “We’re seeing a couple cases of caffeine intoxication syndrome” in which people experience extreme anxiety and a rapid or irregular heartbeat. “We don’t know the long- or short-term impact of this yet,” she added.

Still, foods like these that pump you up are big business — according to a report from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, sales of energy bars and gels increased 5 percent last year to $2.48 billion.

“Energy-infused products are growing in the specialty foods categories,” association spokesman Ron Tanner said. And several makers of high-octane foods are looking to nature. “The trend is fruit and nut bars that give you a boost,” Tanner said. “Many companies are trying to give you a boost with natural items.

“Energy bars are one of the fastest growing categories in fancy foods. These are items that are being marketed to eat before you exercise or in the afternoon, to eat instead of drinking a Diet Coke. In the mass market, Snickers has been doing this for years.”

Lisa Marsh is the editor of "American Fashion Cookbook" and co-author with Marvin Traub of "Like No Other Career: Marvin Traub."

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