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Gettin' Jack'd on Snacks and Gum

By Mike Breen · May 29th, 2013 · Lost in the Supermarket

A couple of months ago, this column examined the rise of non-drinkable caffeinated products on your local supermarket shelves. It was inspired by news of two forthcoming products coming from a pair of major corporations, but they hadn’t hit local shelves yet, so I sought out other “edible speed” instead. 

Those two products — Cracker Jacks’ Cracker Jack’d line of snacks and Wrigley’s Alert Energy caffeine gum — finally hit stores in the subsequent months. One of them is still there. 

Consumer groups — citing deaths allegedly caused by energy drinks, a fear that companies will just start piling caffeine into every kind of mass-produced food product and, of course, the risks to children and pregnant woman — were fighting against the rise of hyperactivity-causing num-nums. 

Cracker Jack’d snacks (made by Frito Lay) and Alert Energy gum were part of the impetus for the vocal protests. Frito Lay said, “Screw it, we’re selling them,” but the Wrigley company backed down. 

In early May, about two weeks after launching Alert, Wrigley announced that it had “paused” sales of the gum. According to an NPR report, this is due to the FDA’s decision to take a “fresh look” at caffeine-laced food, an announcement made the day after Alert Energy gum was placed in stores initially. 

But during a visit to a large local supermarket over Memorial Day weekend, I found a prominent display featuring Alert Energy gum in the checkout line. Either Wrigley’s “pause” in production allowed for gum currently stocked to be grandfathered in or their gum-removal task force just hadn’t made it to that store yet. 

The sugar-fee gum contains eight hexagon-shaped pieces per pack and comes in mint and fruit flavors.

One piece, according to the packaging, equals a half-cup of coffee, caffeine-wise. 

I suppose it’s a good alternative for adults who don’t like drinkable caffeine (or maybe just those who don’t like coffee breath). The military apparently provides caffeinated gum to troops in the field, so it’s also an “easy fix,” if carrying around a hot Starbucks cup isn’t possible. I’m a caffeine addict — I get headaches if I don’t have it — so I popped four pieces of Alert one morning to see if it fixed my fix. While I didn’t get a headache without my usual coffee, I didn’t feel quite as “alert” with just the gum. It also tastes nasty after the 20 seconds of mint flavor wears off, almost medicinal. 

The placement of the gum was a little troublesome, right by the regular gum. While the pack does say “Caffeine Gum” pretty large, it’d be easy to accidentally pick it up without knowing its power. Maybe a kid would slip it into Daddy’s cart. I have a young gum-crazy daughter and I had to reiterate that she was not to sneak a piece (I also told her they’d take the Disney Channel off the air if she did, but that’s neither here nor there). 

Likewise, at a different store, the Cracker Jack’d line of snacks was nestled inconspicuously amongst non-jacked treats. 

Like many people my age, I grew up loving Cracker Jacks, but the brand hasn’t had much of a profile over the past 20 years, so the new snacks smell of a major “rebranding” effort. Perhaps because a dinky fake tattoo prize is no longer the height of entertainment, Cracker Jacks needed the “mature” makeover to target the adults who remember the original. 

Cracker Jack’d caffeine snacks come as Power Bites, chalky, cocoa java- and vanilla mocha-flavored nuggets that actually aren’t bad (no medicinal after-taste, at least). The other products in the line, confusingly, don’t have caffeine. The company’s Hearty or Intense Mix, with flavors like Spicy Pizzeria and Berry Yogurt, make no claims of their ability to perk you up, though they’re still “Snacks with Impact ™.” The biggest claim is that it “fills you up.”

The Power Bites’ “power” is evident if you eat the full package (about 2 oz.). It helped me stay somewhat awake, like a small cup of coffee might. To replace my morning coffee, though, I’d need to eat at least two packs a day, something I think I’d tire of quickly. 

The stand off with consumer groups and the FDA probably will only increase with time (unless we have our first Tea Party president in a few years, in which case anything goes, safety be damned!). But if these companies just asked that the products, at the very least, be placed by the nutritional supplements or at least in the coffee aisle, it would probably help their cause. 

CONTACT MIKE BREEN: mbreen@citybeat.com or @CityBeatMusic



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