What’s the Buzz?

Morning Spark oatmeal, Jolt energy gum, and the search for the perfect caffeine-infused snack.

Recently, while taking a lunch-break stroll near my office, a woman handed me a free bag of a new snack food: Engobi Cinnamon Surge Energy Go Bites. “Infused with caffeine” the bag boasted, alongside some sparkly graphics that seemed to imply the process of infusion happening to what looked like a pork rind. Obviously, I had to try them. Back at the office, I opened the bag of chemical-smelling crisps and prepared, as the packaging suggested, “to get wired. I mean really wired.”

I also did some poking around on the Web and discovered 1) that I had met a real, live Engobi Girl in the midst of their East Coast van tour; and 2) that the snack food is the creation of Ohio-based Rudolph Foods Co., the world’s largest manufacturer of pork rinds. With Engobi—which are not actually pork rinds but kind of sugary puffs—Rudolph claims to have introduced the market’s first “caffeine-infused munchie,” but it is not the first company to have added caffeine to snack foods and candy. Sluggish shoppers can also purchase caffeinated gum, mints, chocolates, jelly beans, sunflower seeds, and even instant oatmeal. (Other products have come and gone: For a while, Snickers was offering the limited-edition Charged bar stocked with caffeine.)

Intrigued, and already starting to feel wired-I-mean-really-wired from the Engobi, I resolved to test this bounty of artificially caffeinated prepackaged foodstuffs. Sure, they had silly names and were marketed mainly at teenagers—but I could imagine them serving a useful purpose for the average working stiff. Could a piece of gum be a reasonable substitute for a hot, unwieldy cup of coffee when you’re running late to work? Might popping a mint before a long meeting help you stay alert and focused? Would munching some sunflower seeds satisfy an afternoon snack attack and provide a pleasant jolt to help you get through the rest of the day? I was determined to find out.

I tested seven products, each on a weekday afternoon around 4 o’clock. This has always been the time that I hit a wall at the office, succumbing to a host of productivity-draining symptoms: mental fogginess, heavy limbs, the need to check e-mail at 90-second intervals. On test days, I ate a normal lunch and avoided any other snacks or caffeinated beverages during the afternoon. I evaluated each product using four criteria:

Taste (10 possible points)
All of the products, I discovered, had either a chemical flavor or medicinal aftertaste—apparently an unavoidable consequence of infusing caffeine. So an important consideration was: How well did the product mask this flavor? Did the palate adjust to any bitter off-notes, or did they become increasingly unpleasant the more you ate? Overall, were the flavors balanced, or was there an excess of salt, sugar, or artificial flavoring? Caffeine content aside, would anyone actually want to eat this?

Convenience (10 possible points)
Is the snack portable? Easy to eat? Does it make a mess? Could you consume it in the car or on the subway? Just as important: Would you be embarrassed if your friends or co-workers saw you eating it?

Value (10 possible points)
Is the cost similar to other, noncaffeinated competitors? How much caffeine are you getting for your money? Would a simple cup of coffee deliver more buzz for your buck?

Efficacy (10 possible points)
Does a normal serving provide a noticeable jolt of caffeine? To compare the products, I devised a reading test. After consuming each food, I tried to plow through a dense, 530-page history of the relationship between architects and engineers that I had been meaning to read for work. Doing such serious reading in the late afternoon has always been difficult for me; I would require a significant chemical boost to buckle down and focus on this daunting tome.

Here are the results, from nauseating to euphoria-inducing:

Morning Spark Cranberry Apple Natural Energy Instant Oatmeal Price: $2.99 for a box of eight single-serve packets Caffeine: 50 mg per packet Warning: “Not recommended for children or those sensitive to caffeine.”

The packaging touts two natural sources of energy—guarana and yerba mate—but I can’t imagine a more artificial flavor: Every spoonful tastes like it has a shot of cough syrup mixed in (which is confusing for those of us who associate that flavor with sedating cough suppressants). Even for instant oatmeal, Morning Spark is terrible. The bitter, medicinal taste seems to be concentrated in the desiccated cranberries and slimy apple slivers, which I avoid. Still, I have to fight back the gag reflex with every spoonful.

Even if the taste were bearable, oatmeal requires more prep work than most snack foods—you need a bowl, a spoon, and hot water. As for its efficacy, Morning Spark did give me a boost, but it also left me feeling woozy and nearly spoiled my appetite for dinner. In the reading test, I got through five pages, then skimmed a few more before a headache set in. The reasonable price tag can’t save it: This is definitely the worst product of the bunch.

Taste: zero (out of 10)
Convenience: 2 (out of 10)
Value: 6 (out of 10)
Efficacy: 5 (out of 10)
Total: 13 (out of 40)

SumSeeds Energized Sunflower Seeds Price: $4.95 Caffeine: 140 mg Warning: None

Right away, I remembered why I don’t like whole sunflower seeds—you know, the kind that require you to shuck the seeds in your mouth, like an insouciant major leaguer. (Indeed, the seeds are endorsed by Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.) Call me fastidious, but I don’t like to spit out my snack foods, particularly at the office. Throughout the test, I was terrified someone was going to barge into my cubicle and catch me dribbling a wad of mangled wet shells into the manila envelope I commissioned as a spittoon.

That wasn’t the only problem. The seeds are extremely salty, probably an effort to cover up the still-discernible chemical flavor. Efficacywise, they were a bust—chewing the seeds required so much concentration that I barely made any progress on my book (reading a mere four pages). After almost half an hour of effort, I gave up without finishing the bag. Ultimately, I got a lift about equal to a few sips of coffee—which, incidentally, would have been cheaper. Recommended for sleep-deprived baseball players only.

Taste: 4 (out of 10)
Convenience: 3 (out of 10)
Value: 3 (out of 10)
Efficacy: 4 (out of 10)
Total: 14 (out of 40)

Jelly Belly Cherry Extreme Sport Energizing Jelly Beans Price: $22.50 for a 24-pack Caffeine: 50 mg per packet Warning: “Not recommended for children, teens, or pregnant or nursing women.”

In 1976, Jelly Belly scored a major marketing coup with its invention of the “gourmet” jelly bean, now the world’s No. 1 seller. (Ronald Reagan, famously a fierce Jelly Belly partisan, sent some along with the astronauts of the 1983 Challenger shuttle.) But it’s hard to know what the company was thinking with its Extreme Sport line, which sacrifices flavor for, I guess, performance—the bag touts the presence of not only caffeine but carbs, electrolytes, and vitamins B and C. That’s right, athletes: Why reach for a tired sports drink when you can slam a bag of Jelly Belly?

Not surprisingly, the beans are terrible—they taste like chewable, past-their-expiration-date cough drops. The bright side is that it only takes a handful to get all 50 mg of caffeine, which does provide a mild buzz. Still, I read a mere three pages of my book, perhaps because I was mentally kicking myself for spending more than $20 on a box of crappy jelly beans. Maybe I can donate them to NASA.

Taste: 3 (out of 10)
Convenience: 7 (out of 10)
Value: 3 (out of 10)
Efficacy: 4 (out of 10)
Total: 17 (out of 40)

Buzz Bites Chocolate Energy Chews Price: $3.99 for a tin of eight chocolates Caffeine: 100 mg per piece Warning: “Not recommended for children and persons who may be caffeine sensitive.”

I was pleasantly surprised by my first few bites of one of these small chocolates—it tasted like … chocolate! There was little or no unpleasant bitter flavor. “This could be our winner,” I thought, but was soon punished for my rush to judgment with a long, lingering chemical aftertaste that completely ruined the initial pleasure. Each chocolate contains a wallop of caffeine—about the same amount as one cup of coffee—yet I experienced a smooth, mellow buzz, which was pleasant. Somehow, it wasn’t enough juice to dig into my engineering history, though—I skimmed seven pages and read only three.

Taste: 3 (out of 10)
Convenience: 7 (out of 10)
Value: 7 (out of 10)
Efficacy: 7 (out of 10)
Total: 24 (out of 40)

Jolt Spearmint Energy Gum Price: $2.49 for a pack of 12 pieces Caffeine: Undisclosed. Two pieces are said to contain as much as a typical energy drink. Warning: “Not a substitute for sleep. This product is as safe as coffee or energy drinks.”

I have fond teenage memories of Jolt Cola, which achieved a kind of cult status for its extravagant levels of caffeine. (Its slogan was marketing genius: “All the sugar, twice the caffeine.”) So I had high expectations for Jolt gum, which were largely met. The gum does taste more bitter than a typical variety, but not enough to be off-putting—the spearmint flavor remains dominant. I could see chewing a piece on the way to the subway, but I wish it were a little more potent. Two pieces are supposed to equal one energy drink; I had three pieces and still felt lethargic—”not a substitute for sleep,” indeed!—although my six pages of reading was above average. This could be good for a quick pick-me-up—but it’s no Jolt Cola.

Taste: 6 (out of 10)
Convenience: 7 (out of 10)
Value: 7 (out of 10)
Efficacy: 6 (out of 10)
Total: 26 (out of 40)

Engobi Cinnamon Surge Energy Go Bites Price: $1.29 Caffeine: 140 mg Warning: “Not recommended for children, pregnant or nursing women, or those sensitive to caffeine.”

I don’t know if it’s the result of their mysterious infusion process, but the Engobi snacks gave me the biggest buzz by far. After eating most of the bag, I felt like my eyes had been hooked up to tiny batteries. Something in my neck twitched violently. My reading test was productive—I sped through 10 pages and felt focused and engaged—but afterward I felt jumpy and slightly ill. That didn’t prevent me, however, from going home and immediately cleaning my entire apartment, a rare feat indeed.

Flavorwise, these puffs taste, at first, almost exactly like Taco Bell’s Cinnamon Twists dessert: addictively crispy vehicles for liberal servings of cinnamon and sugar. Engobi, unfortunately, does have a prolonged and unpleasant aftertaste, enough so that I would never normally choose to eat them as a snack—although they very nearly win this contest for sheer potency.

Taste: 4 (out of 10)
Convenience: 5 (out of 10)
Value: 9 (out of 10)
Efficacy: 10 (out of 10)
Total: 28 (out of 40)

Penguin Caffeinated Peppermints Price: $2.99 per tin, which contains about 25 mints Caffeine: Undisclosed. Three mints are said to contain as much as one cola beverage. Warning: None

These mints were similar to the Jolt gum, but they get extra points for workplace convenience—chewing gum in the office strikes me as borderline déclassé—and for flavor. This was the only product I tested whose medicinal taste could be considered agreeable, or at least not offensive: The mints had a mineral aftertaste that reminded me, pleasantly, of those zinc tablets that are supposed to ward off colds. The caffeine content is relatively light, but that just makes it easier to achieve your own ideal dosage. After two mints, I didn’t notice much of a difference, but after four I found myself tapping my foot rapidly while reading. In that test, I got through nine pages and was interested enough to stop and look up fenestration and postulant in the dictionary. Well, not in an actual dictionary—but, at 4 o’clock, even clicking my way to seems like an insane burst of productivity. We have a winner!

Taste: 7 (out of 10)
Convenience: 9 (out of 10)
Value: 6 (out of 10)
Efficacy: 7 (out of 10)
Total: 29 (out of 40)