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.